One of the reasons bike-sharing systems work is that riders can find bicycles where they need them. Trucks shuttle bikes between stations in anticipation of future demand and to help empty parking spots for incoming bikes. “That’s hard to do with cars,” says MIT’s Larson. “We realized that various dynamic incentives would be needed to encourage users to pick-up and drop-off cars in such a way as to automatically balance the system and make them available throughout the area.”
To get the cars where they are needed, the collaborators are developing a wireless-based logistics system that employs a mix of smart technologies and driver incentives. It would rely on sensor networks and algorithms that recognize drivers’ usage patterns to manage the fleet intelligently. Drivers could earn credits or receive product giveaways if they return cars to charging stations in areas where others want to hire them. They can also use their smartphones to map out locations with available cars – as well as any discounts that might be available for cars at certain stations.
Building the new car will be challenging. “The car is so tiny and so tight because of the folding chassis that packaging is difficult – a half-inch here and there really matters because it’s designed more like an iPhone than a tower computer,” says Larson. “Everything needs to be fully optimized, so late changes are hard to make,” he adds. The designers shaved weight off the design by using an efficient structure and lightweight materials, and avoiding many standard car components such as an internal combustion engine, transmission, radiator and cooling system.
Vehicles passed in-house crash and safety testing earlier this year. Although the little car must safely withstand a crash impact, it does not have to have to endure accidents at highway speeds, meaning the engineers were able to make the car lighter and smaller without compromising its safety, according to Fernandez Isoird. The Fold’s crashworthiness is enhanced by its folding chassis, designed to compress to absorb impact energy.
On the road
Early production Folds could start zipping around European cities this summer. The consortium has built 20 vehicles for demonstrations and testing, says Isoird. Besides the Fold, the team is developing other models, including the convertible Alai and a truck – the Laga – for local deliveries. The consortium has more models in the works as well, including a “buggy”, another small truck, a five-passenger vehicle and a nine-passenger minivan.
But some observers say the cost could be prohibitive to municipalities interested in joining the scheme and to individual buyers. The Fold is scheduled to go on sale in 2013 for around US$16,400 (13,000 euro), several thousand dollars more than the Mercedes’ Smart brand of city cars. “The price tag seems uncompetitive when you can buy a nice, full-capability conventional car for that much,” says UC Berkeley’s Deakin.
But for densely inhabited municipalities interested in implementing a car-share programme, the Fold’s compact dimensions are one of its strongest selling points. There is a “tremendous opportunity to store cars overnight in a close-stacked, nose-to-rear arrangement,” Larson says. If a municipal car park adopted advanced methods such as autonomous self-parking technology, as many as seven Folds could be squeezed into the space of a standard lot. A city like Boston might cut the cost of an underground or covered parking space from $70,000 to perhaps $10,000, he says.
In the meantime, the Basque government is readying the required battery-charging infrastructure. In collaboration with the Basque Energy Entity (EVE) and the Spanish energy company Repsol, it has established IBIL, an organisation that will set up and manage a nationwide electric vehicle-charging network. The Media Lab, meanwhile, is working with French company Schneider Electric to design a next-generation smart charging station.