Are microcars the smaller, greener future of urban driving?


(CNN) – Cities around the world are taking action to clean up their streets.

Barcelona is developing car-free zones and New York is increasing car-free days. London plans to expand the boundaries of a low-emissions zone and Beijing has a license plate lottery to decide who is allowed to drive. Local authorities complain that cars are too big, too dirty and too dangerous for modern cities.

Microcars may have a way of addressing these concerns without sacrificing comfort.

Dutch startup Squad Mobility’s Solar City Car is unlikely to cause many serious accidents with a top speed of 43 kilometers per hour (70 kilometers per hour) for the fastest of its two models and a weight of around 350 kilograms. Neither the solar panels on its roof nor its electric battery contribute to the city’s smog. Three of them — and up to 12 passengers — can fit into a regular parking lot.

It’s for shopping, taking the kids to school, social outings and all these little trips,” says Robert Hoevers, CEO of Squad MobIlity. “And it’s 70 to 80 percent of the average person’s mobility needs.”

The Solar City Car was recently launched for pre-orders from €6,250 (about $6,100) and joins the rapidly expanding field of microcars. Swiss-based Microlino, which is turning heads with its retro-futuristic design, is ramping up from 500 vehicles this year to 5,000 in 2023. The US-Chinese company Eli has sold the first editions of the Zero model in Europe and is preparing for the market. in the usa French giant Citroen launched its first microcar, the AMI, in 2020 and has since developed several variants.

The “Docle” edition of the two-seater Microlino.

Microline

Bending through traffic

Micro-design can offer new advantages. The three-wheeled Nimbus One promises to let drivers cut through traffic using its patented tilting technology. “We’re small enough to fit between cars,” says Nimbus founder Lihang Nong. “It actually leans into a corner and that allows us to keep the footprint of the vehicle very tight.”

The field is loosely defined. By convention, microcars weigh less than 500 kilograms — the Nimbus One is 330 kilograms — and have a top speed of around 50 kilometers per hour (80 kilometers per hour). This allows them to fall into different classifications of normal cars with less tax and regulatory requirements.

The Citroen AMI is classified as a quadricycle and can be driven by 14-year-olds without a license in some European countries. As cars do not produce emissions, they are not subject to low emission zones.

Tiny cars have a long history and many new models pay homage to their predecessors. The Microlino is inspired by the much-loved but short-lived BMW Isetta, a ‘bubble car’ produced in the 1950s.

The 1962 BMW Isetta 300 Super Plus car was launched in 1953 and in 1959 a three-wheeled version was released.

The 1962 BMW Isetta 300 Super Plus car was launched in 1953 and in 1959 a three-wheeled version was released.

National Motor Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

But while previous iterations faltered, there are positive signs that this generation of microcars is here to stay. Transparency Market Research has predicted strong growth figures and a field worth $12.7 billion by 2030. Citroen said it had received more than 1,000 bookings for the AMI within two weeks of its launch in the UK.

“I think this is starting to catch people’s eye and has a lot of potential for growth,” says David Zipper, a mobility specialist at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Cities are shrinking car space … and that’s a tailwind for microcars.”

An exciting commute

Microcars are cheaper to charge than larger electric vehicles because they don’t need as much juice, Zipper adds, and models that don’t require a full driver’s license lower the bar for entry.

There is potential for vehicles to become more specialized for urban spaces, says Oliver Bruce, host of the Micromobility podcast. “I think a lot of cars these days are overpriced for what we need,” he says. “A lot of times you only need one seat … and to move from one side of a city to another in sufficient comfort. That’s where I see the rise of these dedicated vehicles.”

Bruce also points to improvements in manufacturing techniques that have enabled lighter designs. “The range of microcars would have been huge if you had to build them using technology from 10 years ago,” he says. “You’d need a big electric car to have enough batteries.”

Such advances have also helped manufacturers lower costs. When Smart launched an electric two-seater in 2015, the price was $15,400, comparable to traditional cars with much higher range and speed. Many new models are on sale for less than $10,000.

Companies are going even lower for access, putting their models up for rent. Nimbus offers its microcar rental for $200 a month. Hoevers envisions Solar City Car finding many of its customers through ride-sharing platforms as a short-term rental option.

Manufacturers also aim to serve both businesses and individual users, and perform some of the functions that conventional cars perform. Citroen has developed a microcar for delivery drivers.

Microcar entrepreneurs have another trick up their sleeve: the pleasure difference. New designs, such as the space pod-style Microlino or the motorcycle-inspired Nimbus One, promise riders an exciting ride on the regular commute. City dwellers typically travel between five and 20 kilometers per day, according to research from Squad Mobility. Can this be made a pleasure rather than a chore?

Microlino Pioneer Series.

Microlino Pioneer Series.

Microline

“Miniature vehicles can be a lot of fun to drive and operate,” says Zipper. “That’s part of the appeal.”

However, microcars need cities to evolve around them to succeed, Bruce suggests. They would have more infrastructure for electric vehicles and more restrictions on conventional cars, as sharing the road with much larger vehicles could raise safety concerns.

There is also the challenge of overcoming popular resistance to change and accepting the transition to slower vehicles with slower ranges. But there is confidence among manufacturers that lower prices and increased exposure can help break down perception barriers.

Crucially, attitudes in the car industry and among investors are increasingly favorable to microcars, says Bruce. If any of the new launches are successful, many more may join the city streets.