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The rise of microcars

In major cities the population just keeps growing. This is pushing the traffic infrastructure in particular to its limits. Pedelecs, foldable vehicles and electric microcars – micromobility is set to become a key part of the future traffic mix.

And more residents means more cars. The number of cars in Berlin alone rose by 130,000 to over 1.22 million between 2005 and 2020. The consulting firm M-Five from Karlsruhe has calculated (see the 8th “Mobilitätsmonitor” from 2019) that the area occupied by all Berlin’s passenger cars comes to around 17 square kilometers. That is equal to about 214 times the area of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz and nearly 13 percent of the total area of the urban traffic infrastructure.

The Global Traffic Scorecard developed by the traffic data provider INRIX shows that the average German motorist spends more than 46 hours in congestion every year. Munich is again Germany’s congestion capital, with its road users sitting in traffic queues for 87 hours. Berlin follows on 66 hours, and Düsseldorf on 50 hours. But Bogota is in another league entirely. It has knocked Rio de Janeiro off the top spot when it comes to traffic congestion. Drivers in the Columbian capital can expect to spend 191 in congestion every year. And that does not include the time spent looking for a parking spot. In Europe, Rome heads the rankings, on 166 hours. On the other hand, a bicycle-friendly city like Amsterdam racks up only 28 hours.

Smaller is the new large

The mentality shifted a long time ago. In the future, less space will be available for parking. There will also be zones reserved for carsharing schemes and electric vehicles. Protected cycle paths will be shifted onto the roadways. The first neighborhood developments without roads will be realized. In addition, the various forms of mobility will have to be more intensively networked with one another by multimodal mobility apps – including local public transport, rental e-scooters and car and ridesharing services. Above all, the vehicles are set to become smaller. For decades the legendary BMW Isetta was the epitome of maximum reduction, and today its legacy is embodied by the Smart from Daimler and Renault’s Twizy. For several years now, various ideas and concepts involving alternative powertrains have been in development under the motto “smaller is the new large.”

Foldaway cars

The idea of a foldable car has been around for quite a while. South Korean engineers from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology have developed the Armadillo-T that folds down in the middle at the push of a button, to save space when parking. The tiny two-seater’s design was inspired by the armadillo, an animal that rolls up when it feels threatened. Controlled from the user’s smartphone, the miniature car folds up to half of its original length, from almost 3 meters down to 1.65 meters. During this process, the rear of the car rises up and four small support wheels are extended to act as stabilizers. The car is so light that the driver can then simply push it into the desired parking space. However, it has not advanced past the prototype stage. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Basque innovation center Denokinn have developed the Hiriko CityCar that has a similar design. “Hiriko” is a Basque word meaning “urban.” The tiny car has four electric motors in the wheel hubs and its special feature is that the wheels can turn by 90 degrees, sideways on to a parking space.

The Hiriko can simply drive sideways into its parking spot. The 2.50-meter long electric car can shrink to a mere 1.50 meters. This means that three Hirikos will fit in a parking spot for a conventional passenger car. When the car folds up, the seats rise to facilitate entry and exit through the front. Market launch was scheduled for 2015. Even the EU provided funding to support the project. But it failed owing to technical problems and legal disputes. The German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence also has a promising study with the EO smart connecting car 2. Like the Hiriko, this micro vehicle can park sideways and shrink to 1.5 meters by virtue of its foldable chassis and the driver’s compartment lifts up. Autonomous driving is made possible by an all-round system of sensors and cameras. It can not only drive in a convoy, but can also reach its destination in self-driving mode. A coupling mechanism enables additional modules to dock on, such as a loading area or an extra passenger module. But this vehicle has not yet made it to series production.

Micro cars are forging ahead

The Uniti One, a small electric car from the eponymous start-up, was expected to roll off the production lines this year with a price tag of 15,000 euros. In terms of its size, it is similar to a Smart. The 3.3-meter long four-seater e.Go Life (basic price 17,900 euros) was produced in Aachen, Germany. However, both manufacturers are currently facing huge problems due to the coronavirus crisis, with e.Go undergoing insolvency proceedings. And another project has also run into difficulty: the Swiss company Micro Mobility Systems originally wanted to launch its lightweight electric car Microlino, that resembles the Italian Isetta, onto the market in the summer of 2018. Now the launch of the 2.4-meter short version of the retro-look car is scheduled for 2021.

Probably the success of microcars in the next few years will depend most of all on the size of the company producing them. The Italian vehicle maker Fiat is currently working on its electric Centoventi concept that is 3.68 meters long and 1.53 meters high and designed as a new, all-electric version of the Panda. Furthermore, designers are coming up not only with new approaches to individual passenger transport, but also innovations for delivery traffic, which has been booming during recent years due to the growth in online shopping and is increasingly filling up the roads. The supplier Schaeffler has developed its Bio-Hybrid, a four-wheel pedelec with a roof. There is a passenger version and a cargo version. The rider still has to pedal but is assisted by a 250-watt electric motor. A driver’s license is not required and the vehicle is narrow enough to use cycle paths. And there will probably also be a state subsidy for purchasing one. These are indeed good prospects for the rise of the “micromobiles.”

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