This is a follow-up to my previous essay on the Future of Transportation, which is a useful if not requisite prologue to some of the ideas that I explore in the following analysis.
Images courtesy of Hiriko unless otherwise noted
MIT Media Lab's CityCar concept had been in the works for years prior to its unveiling as "Hiriko" (Basque for 'urban car') this past January; a new video demo is the occasion for a recent wave of press. The two-person electric vehicle has attracted quite a bit of attention for its manifold innovations, including the (not yet street legal) electric chassis:
The design utilizes a novel technology called Robot Wheels. The Robot Wheel modules are controlled electronically using by-wire systems made popular by the aerospace industry and is attached to the four corners of the foldable chassis designed by the MIT team. Each Robot Wheel can be independently controlled allowing the CityCar to execute tight maneuvers that are helpful when driving in cities such as spinning on its own axis to achieve an "O-turn." The removal of traditional drivetrain elements like gasoline engine, transmissions, and gearboxes allows for an unencumbered chassis thus freeing up space for folding linkages.
The "folding linkages" between the two sets of wheels allows the Hiriko to fold from eight feet long down to five, and coupled with the pivoting wheelbase, the car takes up just one-third of a standard parking space: it's literally a straightforward solution to maximizing curbside parking, with potential to alleviate pockets of congestion caused by poor parallel parking. Moreover, the novelty of the canopy-style windshield (seen in the video below) belies its true benefits: the upward-swinging door safely deposits both passengers on the curb. (This would also be a boon to door-fearing cyclists.)
Labored voiceover aside, the demo of the chassis at 1:00 is pretty cool....
But—lest the Hiriko become the next Segway—the technology angle is just one side of the story: the vehicle has vertical and horizontal implications, from manufacturing to transit dynamics. The Times' Wheels blog has a brief history of the CityCar project and its economic upshot and the Guardian is optimistic about its social impact. Beyond the hardware innovations, Hiriko was developed with a sort of hybrid ZipCar-meets-bikeshare accessibility model:
The team also created a new model of mobility that would utilize the CityCar and other lightweight EVs in a shared-use scheme. By deploying CityCars at charging points distributed throughout a metropolitan area the MIT team envisioned a new network of vehicles that would allow any user of the system to simply walk-up, swipe an access card, pick-up a vehicle, and drive to any other charging point. Called Mobility-on-Demand, this strategy would provide high levels of convenience and flexibility found in shared systems like bike sharing programs, available in much of Europe and now in North America.
This, of course, is none other than the 'First and Last Mile' problem, those tiresome gaps between your home, your mass transit hub, and your workplace. In many cases, it's more convenient to default to a car, which will take you from door-to-door (or at least garage-to-garage) despite the congestion and footprint; hence the challenge for urban planners. An article in Pacific Standard sums it up nicely:
Drivers use them like shared bikes, picking up a car at a Hiriko depot near where they're coming from, and dropping it at one near their destination. Thus they address the "last mile" problem of mass transit and "might be most useful at the edges of cities where the transit network is sparse," explains architect Kent Larson, director of the MIT research group. "In an inner city where it's very walkable to begin with and then you have good trams or subways or buses, you don't need the vehicles so much. But at the edges you have a desperate need for additional mobility."
Even so, the Hiriko strikes me as at least one step (and one generation) removed from reality, at best a new subcategory of public transportation... and at worst the electric successor to the Mini Cooper and the SmartCar; simply a smaller, more efficient car, as opposed to an ideological breakthrough. This last characterization is not intended as a criticism but a counterpoint to hyperbolic headlines such as "Car Sharing With Crazy Folding Cars Is Coming To Europe"; for what it's worth, I have utmost respect for the "anti-disciplinary research team" behind the Smart Cities project and their late adviser William Mitchell (1944-2010). In fact, I believe that the Hiriko is an absolutely worthy solution to their stated mission "to take on the biggest issues facing cities today: congestion, inefficient energy and land-use, air and noise pollution, and carbon emissions leading to global warming."
In fairness to the Smart Cities team, the CityCar is just one of the three concepts—the most highly developed one—in their original propsal for "Mobility-on-Demand."1
Mobility-on-Demand systems also addresses what transportation planners call the "First Mile, Last Mile" problem of mass transit systems, by providing mobility near or at a user's origin and final destination by creating a intermodal network that is complementary and synergistic to transit systems. In addition to the CityCar, the Smart Cities team also designed a folding electric motor scooter called the RoboScooter, and an electric assist bicycle called the GreenWheel. The GreenWheel integrates Lithium-ion batteries with electric motors into a modular hub unit that could easily be retrofitted into any standard bicycle. Together with the CityCar, the RoboScooter and GreenWheel would create a Mobility-on-Demand ecosystem of lightweight and low-energy EVs, where users can select the appropriate vehicle for each trip segment.
Then again, the Hiriko is a car, an automotive that is designed to be operated within extant infrastructure, both physically and psychologically, and it's still subject to the countless vagaries of urban congestion: idling taxis, inattentive drivers, narrow one-way streets, double-parked vans, double-wide delivery trucks, street sweepers, road work, bus lanes, etc. etc. For all of its advantages over, say, an Escalade, Hiriko has nothing on a bicycle or (as anyone who has spent time in European or Asian metropolises knows) its motorized analogues—experienced cyclists and scooter-riders can navigate bumper-to-bumper traffic with Frogger-like prowess.
Yet the Hiriko takes on its broader significance precisely because it is a car, a machine that needs to be manufactured—i.e. it will create jobs—and is as much a conveyance for status as for underprivileged passengers. (It's worth noting that the folding mechanism also serves to make it look more car-like on the road, morphing into a compressed, SmartCar-esque silhouette only when parked.) Not only is it chock full of sensible features, the Hiriko is metaphorically expected to far exceed its range of roughly 100km (on a single charge), a sub-sub-compact symbol of progress—socially, economically and environmentally. It's no wonder, then, that the €12,500 ($16,000) electric buggy is attracting interest (and investors) throughout the Western world.
Indeed, it's difficult to deny the utopian appeal of a seamless, technologically-facilitated transportation ecosystem, universally accessible yet designed for maximum efficiency and site-specificity. As previously-quoted Kent Larson told Pacific Standard, "'For San Francisco, with its hills, you'd have probably more powerful wheel motors and bigger batteries... You might have a heating element in Malmö that keeps the system warm. Batteries don't like to get cold.'" And as futuristic as it all sounds, the latter city will host the preliminary pilot program with the first 20 production models starting early next year.
If the Hiriko program is on track to launch within a decade, I was interested to learn about an unrelated transportation news item in the Paper of Record last week. The day after they reported that the much-anticipated NYC bikeshare would be delayed, the Times ran an article about the new cyclist superhighway in (where else but) the capital of bike commuting, formerly known as the capital of Denmark. The initiative to standardize and maintain major bicycle routes throughout the Copenhagen metro area is part infrastructrual revitalization effort and part public health campaign, all for the greater good.
Several biking innovations are being tested in Copenhagen. Some, like footrests and "green wave" technology, which times traffic lights at rush hour to suit bikers, have already been put into place on the superhighway. Others, like garbage cans tilted at an angle for easy access and "conversation" lanes, where two people can ride side by side and talk, might show up on long-distance routes in the future.
Jan Grarup for The New York Times
Since the debut of the so-called superhighway this past spring, the response has been overwhelmingly positive—which is unsurprising, given Danes' predilection for pedal power.
[Brian Hansen, the head of Copenhagen's traffic planning section,] and his team saw potential in suburban commuters, most of whom use cars or public transportation to reach the city. "A typical cyclist uses the bicycle within five kilometers," or about three miles, said Mr. Hansen, whose office keeps a coat rack of ponchos that bicycling employees can borrow in case of rain. "We thought: How do we get people to take longer bicycle rides?"
The program addresses the very same problem (as in the Smart Cities brief) by turning it on its head: instead of the 'First and Last Mile,' they've framed it as what I'll call the 'Middle Five Kilometers.' In other words, Danish urban planners have approached the problem from the opposite perspective, starting with the premise that bicycles are the de facto mode of transit for first and last mile and tackling the issue of how to accommodate cyclists for the mileage in between.
Thus, my measured critique of Hiriko is not that it falls short as a mobility solution, but the fact that it begins and ends, so to speak, with the "first and last mile." If limiting the scope of the problem enables the deep focus that leads to highly refined solutions such as Hiriko (which was developed within the practical constraints of existing dependence on automobiles and mass transit), broadening the issue invites a lateral approach. The cycle superhighway may be an incremental step for the Danes—Copenhagen is obviously too singular a city to serve as a case study—but it would be nothing short of a quantum leap in this country: U.S. infrastructure is generally a case (to transpose the cliché) of 'you can't have your bike and ride it too.' This, too, is a given for the majority of F&LM solutions, whether it's a folding e-bike for the last ten blocks or a slick scooter for the last hundred yards, though projected growth of the electric bicycle market represents a first step towards bridging those five kilos.2
The fact that Minister of Transport Henrik dam Kristensen seems nonchalantly apologetic in his, um, acknowledgement that cars have the right to exist [@2:42 in the Times video] says it all. It comes down to a deep-seated cultural discrepancy, where the 'middle distance' between the first and last mile is immeasurably greater than the span of any superhighway—even, say, a metaphorical one that stretches across the Atlantic. Barring questions of whether its a matter of means, scale, bureacracy or public support, the widely-cited fact that "one-third of all trips in Copenhagen are made by bicycle" suggests that there's still a long way to go.
So I should hope that this was more than just a very long way of saying that a bicycle is smaller than a car, or an oblique way of saying that bikes short circuit the brief—to alleviate congestion, pollution, etc.—and then some. These are givens, whether you're concerned with the 'First and Last Mile' or the 'Middle Five Kilometers.' The point here is that MIT's thoughtful, well-engineered electric vehicle is significant not for what's inside of it but for its very 'car-ness'—in contrast to the alternate universe presented by Copenhagen, a grand experiment in itself. Hence, two (non-exclusive) possibilities for the future of transportation.
Here, I'll stop short of the parallel dichotomy between the entrepreneurial spirit of making new things to solve problems versus a hardline stance on employing infrastructure as a means to the same end. Instead, I'll reiterate my original hypothesis that the pleasure of driving is the essentially same as that of riding a bike: beyond the combination of speed and freedom, we simply want to move through the world quickly and efficiently, unfettered by the realities of exertion (in the case of cycling) or congestion (in the case of driving), and the bane of traffic (for both). Given the choice between a commute on a bicycle superhighway or in an electric CityCar (if not an autonomous one) I daresay many commuters would default to the former. At least one Dane, quoted in the Times piece, agrees: "It's unavoidable to commute to work. This way, you are using the time doing something fun."
1. NB: As of press time, the Smart Cities website was offline and the CityCar project had been folded into the Changing Places research group, which included only an abstract of the Mobility-on-Demand research.
Update (7/24): Well, that was quick: the SmartCities website is back online.