Exciting left-field concepts pop up every year but many sink without trace, gradually becoming an obscure footnote in car history. An electric city car that can, quite literally, fold itself up - as this Hiriko very well can - could quite easily be dismissed as another here today, forgotten tomorrow show car.
But the Hiriko Fold, the fruit of a collaboration between the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a consortium of companies based in the Basque region of Spain, seems well on the way to a production reality.
The Fold is perhaps easier on the the eye than its Parisian counterpart - the Bluecar
The Hiriko began life back in 2003 as a project for a city car by MIT. Since January 2010, a group of small businesses have endeavoured to take the car into commercial production. General Motors’ advanced projects division had some input, too, until their financial woes curtailed involvement in 2008. And if you’re wondering about the name, ‘Hiriko’, although oriental sounding, is actually derived from the Basque words for ‘urban’ (‘Hiri’) and ‘car’ (‘Ko’).
As its moniker suggests, the Fold has the ability to shorten its own wheelbase and fold upright, enabling it to reduce its overall length to just 2.0m. In full-length form, the two-seater Hiriko’s overall length is 2.6m, or a couple of feet longer than a Renault Twizy. But at the touch of a button on the aircraft-style control column, its rear module retracts itself under the chassis, raising the cabin into an upright position and folding the car up like an inverted suitcase.
One of the popular smart car’s original selling points was that it could be parked end-on (just about) – the Hiriko takes that concept a step further. In shortened form, it occupies two-thirds of a Smart’s length and, in theory, three Hirikos could squeeze into a parking space large enough for one typical saloon.
Economy of space is at the heart of the Hiriko’s design brief. Aimed purely at city use (a top speed limited to 20-30mph rules out anything other than intra-urban driving), the car’s creators envisage a future for the Hiriko as part of a shared-use car scheme. If their vision comes to fruition, Boris-bike style rows of folded Hirikos could become a common sight in the centres of major cities around the world. The team says there has been interest from cities including Barcelona, San Francisco and Hong Kong.
When folded the Hiriko is quite tall, but it's horizontal space that's at a premium in urban areas
The Fold may well be offered for sale to private individuals too, with prices rumoured to be set at around 12,500 Euros. The car’s most likely future, however, lies in city-owned shared-use rental schemes, with punters borrowing the cars on an hourly or daily basis.
Manoeuvrability is also a key feature for the Hiriko. The Fold is capable of zero-radius turning, rotating through 360 degrees from stationary thanks to its ‘robotic wheels’ positioned at each corner. These modular wheel units incorporate the motors, brakes, suspension and steering system, and are controlled by a drive-by-wire arrangement. Each wheel offers more than 60 degrees of movement.
Power comes from a 20hp electric motor, with the Hiriko’s floor-mounted lithium-ion batteries supplying energy for up to 75 miles of driving between charges. The designers have also managed to package a faintly incredible 210-litre boot into the car.
Despite all those moving parts and large expanses of glass, the Hiriko’s overall weight is claimed to be an extremely impressive 500kg.
Occupants access the car through the lift-up front screen, as in a bubble-car, whilst the futuristic steering and hand-operated drive controls swivel out of the way. Access and egress is somewhat easier than bubble-cars of old when the car is in its raised stance; once the Hiriko is in abbreviated form, the seats are entirely upright and the car’s roofline stands well above head height.
The idea of a folding, variable wheelbase car isn’t entirely new, of course. The Renault Zoom concept from the Paris show of 1992 also featured an adjustable wheelbase via moving rear wheels and it too could shorten and raise itself for hassle-free parking at right angles to the kerb. A car with collapsible dimensions is not new territory even for MIT, having worked on a stackable car concept back in 2007.
The tiny Hiriko can turn through 360 degrees on the spot. Like James Brown
The pre-production prototype Hiriko had its official launch in January this year, unveiled in Brussels by European Commission president José Manuel Barroso, an endorsement which suggests the project stands some chance of successful adoption in Europe. The Spanish government has contributed 15 million Euros towards funding the project so far.
Test vehicles have been trundling around the Basque city of Vitoria-Gasteiz since July as part of a pilot programme and production versions are scheduled to reach the road in Spring 2013 – within six months. Furthermore, Berlin recently agreed terms for Hiriko test cars to be trialled through the city next year before being adopted as part of Deutsche Bahn’s eFlinkster electric car sharing scheme in 2014. An open-topped version, the Ialai, is in development too, and by 2020, the aim is to build up to 7500 cars a year.
The Hiriko is billed as ‘a solution to urban problems’. But how enthusiastically, and to what extent, it will be adopted remains to be seen. Its advantages over conventional transport are arguably slight; short it may be, but it’s still a fairly wide vehicle and its ability to squeeze itself into tight spots for parking is partly dependent on space ahead of the wide-opening front hatch. That said, it’s a clever, intriguing and very neatly realised machine that deserves to be more than an oddball footnote in the city car story. A fleet of Folds raising and spinning themselves around the centres of cities across the world would be a fascinating prospect; come 2014 that curious notion may yet become a reality.
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