Bloated mid-century cars were once named to suggest distant travel: Wayfarer, Safari, Jetstar. Now comes the tiny Hiriko. The name means “urban” in the Basque region of Spain, where its production begins next year. At 100 inches long when in driving mode, the electric two-seater is just 6 inches shorter than a Smart. But parked, it folds to almost half that length; three, nested together, fit a standard parking space. Hirikos will be priced at about $16,000, but they will not be marketed to individuals. Fleets will be deployed, as in bike-sharing schemes. Likely the first cities to get them will include Malmö, Barcelona, Berlin, Hong Kong, and San Francisco.
The Hiriko was developed by MIT’s Smart Cities Research Group. “Actually, we came up with our name after we started work on the car,” said PhD candidate and project manager Ryan Chin. It’s “not an individual car but part of a network of urban vehicles that connect to existing transit and energy networks, with cities being the organism it resides in.”
The vehicle employs “by-wire” technology, which replaces the mechanical linkages of conventional cars’ steering, acceleration, and braking systems. Instead, those functions are performed by each of the wheels, responding to electronic signals as the driver manipulates a yoke—picture what an airplane pilot uses—to indicate forward motion, turning, and braking. Hiriko’s four identical wheel modules all perform those three functions, making the car maneuverable enough to spin on its own axis. That modularity optimizes economies of scale in production, while the lack of mechanical gear allows for compactness and its featherweight.
Cool technology. But Chin added, “At some point this is no longer a pretty, transforming car. It’s not owned by anyone but it’s a civic thing.” That may require a conceptual leap over traditional hot-wheels hype.
The comparable model is bike sharing. In fact, one member of the MIT group has become “a world expert on bike-sharing logistics.” Even that is not ideal: “There’s a redistribution problem when bikes end up in the wrong places. Currently, Barcelona loses around 17 million euros a year just to redistribute bicycles on trucks. And you couldn’t do that with cars easily.” Another challenge: the strain on a city’s electric grid from adding thousands of cars, with less than 100 miles’ range, needing frequent recharge.
In the United States, aside from the not insignificant matter of altering the culture of mobility, there are legal issues. Some communities do allow “neighborhood electric vehicles”—think golf carts—with top speeds of 25 mph. Like them, the Hiriko is not meant for highways. Still, said Chin, “You need another class of vehicle [like the Hiriko] above that with shelter, signals, and a certain level of safety,” and higher permitted speeds. “The only way we’re going to get headway is to deploy vehicles like the one we’ve designed in places that allow them, and have them flourish to the point where the public says, ‘We need a policy change.’”