How A Folding Electric Vehicle Went From Car Of The Future To 'Obsolete' : All Tech Considered Engineers at MIT developed an electric, shareable car that would fold to conserve parking spaces. A prototype was made for production in Europe. But why did this promising auto never hit the road?

How A Folding Electric Vehicle Went From Car Of The Future To 'Obsolete'

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Here's the story of a remarkable car. It's remarkable because it's electric, remarkable because it folds up so you park in less space and also remarkable because we no longer know where it is. It's a tale that says a lot about the challenge of inventing the transportation of the future. And it comes our way thanks to the NPR's Cities Project.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Becoming a world class city.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Keep the transit running.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We have to move people a lot efficiently.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Come take a ride of the future.

INSKEEP: We'd love to take a ride in the future, but first we're going to have to find that missing car. Our story begins at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT has a program that's focused on future cities, and researchers there have been rethinking the automobile. They'd like a car that pollutes less and takes up less space and costs less, all of which would transform the cities in which we all live, since our cities have almost entirely been engineered around the automobile. So the MIT engineers invented the CityCar, a small electric two-seater - looks like a futuristic VW Bug. Couple years ago, MIT's Kent Larson showed one off to our colleague Elise Hu.


ELISE HU, BYLINE: First, where are we?

KENT LARSON: We are in the atrium of the media lab.

INSKEEP: Which is where you find MIT's City Science Initiative.


LARSON: Down below us, you will see a full-scale mechanical prototype of what we call the CityCar.

INSKEEP: Visitors could check it out like any new car. You know, kick the tires.


LARSON: Each wheel - what we call a robot wheel - has the drive motor, the steering motor, the braking and it folds.

HU: Wait a second.

LARSON: (Laughter) Yes, it folds up to occupy very little space. You would be astounded how much prime land in the center of the city is devoted to cars not in use. You can get three and a half of these cars to one conventional car.

HU: Will anyone actually get to drive this?

LARSON: Well, we have a full-scale working prototype now in Spain, so we worked with one of our sponsors to commercialize it. There are plans for the Spanish company to have them out by next year.

INSKEEP: Or so Kent Larson of MIT told Elise Hu back in 2013. A lot was happening back then or seemed to be happening. Some European leaders saw the CityCar as a solution to urban problems. They wanted fleets of city cars, shareable cars parked at train stations where people could pick them up like a bike-share. The European Union invested millions of euros to help this happen. And the CityCar had a grand debut in Brussels. The then president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, hailed the car as a trans-Atlantic exchange between the world of science and the world of business.


JOSE MANUEL BARROSO: ...Opens to new thinking and these changes.

INSKEEP: The CityCar was renamed the Hiriko in the Basque region of Spain, where it was to be produced. That word means urban. This was all so exciting that we naturally wanted one of our reporters to get a ride in the CityCar. And so we called up reporter Lauren Frayer who is in Spain. Hi, Lauren.


INSKEEP: Did you get a ride?

FRAYER: I did not, unfortunately, because the project has screeched to a halt here in Spain. Two years ago, the Spanish government was so excited to be a part of this that it devoted $18 million of taxpayers' money - this is at the height of the economic recession here - to help produce this folding car. It was supposed to create lots of green jobs here. But that money has since disappeared.


FRAYER: Yeah, seven Spanish businessmen are under formal investigation for misuse of public money and falsifying documents. Igor Lopez de Munain is a Basque lawmaker who's been investigating.

IGOR LOPEZ DE MUNAIN: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "The money went straight into their pockets," he says. The Basque government and local business leaders touted this. But this lawmaker alleges that they never actually planned to even build the cars. Ex-employees have said the prototype they debuted in Brussels was held together with Velcro and superglue.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

FRAYER: I did speak with the head engineer who described a lack of unified vision among entrepreneurs here. He thinks the money was spent on the project, though. He says it's pretty expensive to turn a design into a commercial vehicle.

INSKEEP: But, Lauren, there was that original working prototype. Did you get a chance to look at that?

FRAYER: Well, several sources told me that they'd last seen that car in an industrial warehouse outside the Basque city of Vitoria-Gasteiz. So I hopped in a taxi, and I went there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: (Speaking Spanish).

The taxi driver was a little bit confused. He dropped me off at this abandoned warehouse. I knocked on metal shutters. I peered through windows. I didn't see anybody. I did see a flock of geese nesting on the doorstep. The car may or may not be behind those locked doors, but this is as close as I'm going to get to it.

INSKEEP: In any case, it's not on European roads, as many people had hoped. And that raises a question for me, Lauren Frayer. Some people might be remembering, in a moment like this, this old documentary, "Who Killed The Electric Car?" which was about car companies essentially destroying a technology they didn't want. I'm wondering if that could have happened here.

FRAYER: No one suspects sabotage. But they do think that in hindsight, they took this MIT futuristic idea and gave it to conventional car engineers to produce. And that just didn't work. But what's funny is that since the project's demise here, electric cars have become all the rage. Some of the Hiriko project managers have started new companies, some of them using technology very similar to that robo-wheel from the folding Hiriko car. Former employees have raised questions about whether that infringes on the patents for that technology.

INSKEEP: Well, Lauren, I hope you have a safe drive home in whatever vehicle you may be in.

FRAYER: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's reporter Lauren Frayer. She is in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain.

So this car was original and fascinating and ill-fated, a disappointment in the annals of invention, or maybe not. We check back in with Kent Larson, that leader of the team that created the folding car at MIT. And he told us he is not sad.

LARSON: No, actually it was a great thing because at that point, we had all kinds of new ideas we wanted to explore.

INSKEEP: Kent Larson says it's fine that the CityCar hasn't been produced because technology is changing so rapidly that this new idea is already obsolete. MIT has moved on.

LARSON: Moved on from a vehicle that folds to save space to one that doesn't ever need to be parked.

INSKEEP: Yeah, they're working on a new electric vehicle that would help more people live without owning their own cars. The car doesn't need to fold because it will be constantly in motion, driving itself around a city.

LARSON: This would be something like a autonomous, driverless Uber system.

INSKEEP: It would pick you up, take you where you need to go. They call it the PEV, the Persuasive Electric Vehicle - looks almost like a rickshaw - lightweight, with three bicycle wheels. Larson is hoping that this vehicle will be the one. The technology needs to work and also have a sort of magic to become the transportation of the future. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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