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The European Micro-Hybrid
Jamais Cascio, 13 Jul 05

minimobil.jpgThe "MINIMOBIL" is a new vehicle designed by a joint Austrian-Czech team as low-cost, high-efficiency personal transport for the streets of European cities. As a hybrid, it has a longer range (and higher potential speed) than similarly-sized electric vehicles; it is capable of all-electric mode, too, for 30-50 kilometers, more than enough for typical city trips. As the image shows, it's tiny -- four can fit in a typical parking space -- and due to its size, it may be classified as a "four wheel motorcycle" in Europe. The MINIMOBIL is designed with flexibility in mind, with the rear section being able to hold various modules for additional seating, cargo, even lawn maintenance. The default set up allows for two people to ride, sitting tandem.

The MINIMOBIL joins a growing list of microcars (which make the Smart look big) either on or soon-to-be on the streets of Europe: the G-Wiz all-electric (based on the India-made REVA); the Naro prototype design; the Tango, with safety specs meeting international racing car standards; even the MDI Air Car, which can go for about 50 miles on a single tank of compressed air. The MINIMOBIL is the first hybrid microcar; it's unclear from the limited English-language information whether the designers intend to sell the vehicle directly, or license the model to bigger carmakers.

[Czech engineer Dr. Miroslav Cenek gives some details of the development of Czech electric and hybrid vehicles in a 2003 paper here (PDF); for those of you who speak Czech, here's a 2004 news report about the MINIMOBIL.]

minimobil2.jpgAdmittedly, Austria and the Czech Republic are not the first places one thinks of for vehicle technology innovations. The funding for the project came from the EU Eureka project (site currently down, here's a cache), in the relatively low amount of €1.05 million. But with that relatively small amount of money, the Dioss Elcom Spol. SRO company in the Czech Republic and the Banner Gmbh company in Austria managed to come up with a novel vehicle prototype on time and on budget. And while the range, speed and cargo capacity of the MINIMOBIL is nowhere close to even the tiny Honda Insight, building a serial hybrid design more-than-usable in cities and weighing a bit more than 500kg is impressive, to say the least.

More interesting, however, is the further development of the low-cost microvehicle niche in Europe. Although there may be some cultural differences at play (nobody's going to feel like King of the Road in a MINIMOBIL), the big reason why this niche is possible is urban density. Big cars and trucks are a pain in dense cities, especially those with narrow streets; microcars have sufficient speed and range for intra-city travel (and, in some cases, sufficient for shorter inter-city trips as well), and allow for greater cargo and route flexibility than mass transit.

And, as much as we may not like it, one of the victims of the London tube and bus bombings may be public willingness to take mass transit. For now, there may be little choice -- normal-sized vehicles are subject to stiff controls and fees in central London -- but microvehicles may end up being an attractive option for people who don't trust the safety of subways and busses, but don't want the hassle and expense of a full-sized car. It's entirely possible, of course, that the lack of further attacks on public transit will let people return to feeling that they can trust the systems' safety -- but if busses and subways are hit again (or, worse still, repeatedly), we will really need a bright green alternative to them that people will be willing to use. Microcars may not be that solution, but they're a welcome experiment.

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Comments

This is the kind of vehicle that the oil industry and American car manufacturers will point to and mock when the subject of higher CAFE standards comes up. :-)

Seriously: It might make for a nice hourly-rental chore-vehicle for the residents of more enlightened cities and perhaps college towns.


Posted by: Stefan Jones on 13 Jul 05

Agreed. Actually, I think it's a bit too small, even for a micro; the Tango is a bit better, especially given its safety features. It's just too expensive now, though.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 13 Jul 05

Bike! bike bike bike!

Seriously, if your vehicle no longer has the advantage of being able to carry much stuff, what advantage DOES it have? Certainly it isn't any quicker, and I'll bet you can't pick one of these up for under £200...


Posted by: Dave on 13 Jul 05

Well, it *can* carry more stuff than most people can on a bike, and it can reach up to 90 km/hr speeds -- probably achievable on bike for some, but not many.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 13 Jul 05

I'm interested in this scale of vehicle (or smaller )to solve the "last mile problem" of transit, plus being a short trip vehicle in and of itself.

Transit usually faces a number of related problems: infrequency of service, slow travel times because of frequent stops, scheduled stops, payment to the driver, etc. Even accomodations for access to disabled passengers frequently disables the bus in the process when the stairs/chair lift gets stuck.

If stops were much further apart from one another, and especially if buses were to get priority signal access and/or priority lanes, stop-to-stop speeds would increase considerably, making transit much more viable compared to a lot of automobile trips. The big advantage of driving a car is you don't need to stop to pick up and drop off people during your specific trip.

But if the stops were spaced far apart (eg, 2 miles instead of the typical 2 blocks), it would be time consuming to walk to a given stop (up to 20 minutes if one were along the bus route), and would certainly be prohibitive for people with limited ability to cover distance.

Microcars like the ones you're mentioning, as well as Segways, scooters, bikes, and my personal favorite, the Honda Gyro Canopy (http://www.honda.co.jp/motor-lineup/gyro-canopy/), would all be very useful in shuttling people from their origin point, to their nearest transit stop, then also from their transit drop-off point to their destination. They'd also be great short trip vehicles.

Thing is, the transit agency or some other institution would probably need to set up a fleet arrangement such that one didn't own the vehicles but that the vehicles were simply an extension of the transit service itself and were simply paid for as they were used.

The nice thing about this system design, too, is that it would involve radically fewer routes with far more frequent routes (which could be concentrated on the best arterials and highways) -- all of which would make the transit system more economical and increase the incentives to use it.

The problem with small vehicles is that they have limited usefulness as speeds increase and/or the road size gets bigger -- just too dangerous for most people to accept. Then the engineers of these vehicles often have to make pretty radical designs to try and mitigate that problem (like making the Tango absurdly heavy with lead-acid batteries so it doesn't tip over, which of course makes the vehicle far less energy efficient).

Using small vehicles in the context of short trips (either independent or feeding transit) via local roads or relatively safe arterials makes it much easier to use lighter, simpler designs (which of course are going to be cheaper).

The Gyro Canopy I mentioned, though, out of the box is only about $4,000 new, is a stable tilting three-wheeler, gets around 100 mpg, has lockable storage (up to 62 liters and 30 kg - http://www.honda.co.jp/motor-lineup/gyro-canopy/equip.html), and has a windshied/faring for use in all kinds of weather. Oh, and it's a Honda, so it'll hold up well.

Dr. Susan Shaheen from Berkeley seems to have been doing good work on the last mile problem for a number of years. It would be great, Jamais, if perhaps you could encourage her to make a writing contribution or two to Worldchanging to explain her research for us.

In any case, it's great to see all kinds of innovations in this field.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 13 Jul 05

Call me silly but I prefer my cars to be bigger then I am.


Posted by: wintermane on 13 Jul 05

"Call me silly but I prefer my cars to be bigger then I am."

You weigh more than 500 kg? :)


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 13 Jul 05

Its the seating compartment its rather dinky. Im a fair bit bigger then it is.


Posted by: wintermane on 13 Jul 05

I've got a great idea. Instead of building the most efficient vehicle possible, and cutting down the dimensions as much as possible, why doesn't some innovative American tinkerer simply start with a "generously proportioned" LayZBoy chair and then buld a vehicle around it?

Heck, they could even use one of those recliners with the beer fridge built right in.

Bonus points to the designer who will actually make it possible to drive the LayZBoy car right up the stairs and directly into the living room.

It could even be multimodal. Per that "last mile" discussion, it would be nice to have a rail or conveyor belt of sorts with entry/exit points spaced 2 miles apart. Then someone could just drive the LayZBoy car right up to the stop, hook in to the line, then off they go!

It'd be nice if it could also firm up a bit and double as an office chair - because wouldn't it be nice to drive your car right to your desk? And then if it could fully recline, it could also function as your bed! You could take it to the dentist, to the barber, to restaurants, to the movies - wherever. You could even have boats to use with them so you could fish from the LayZBoy chair.

Except for bathing and other hygienic necessities, I don't think one would ever have to leave the comfort of one's favorite recliner ever again.

I'm totally serious about this.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 13 Jul 05

Someone did that actauly;/ Tho it didnt go up stairs it could do 60 on the freeway...


Posted by: wintermane on 13 Jul 05

So it really has the carrying capacity and speed of a heavy-duty motorcycle or one of those customized tricycles you sometimes see at hobbyist meets. It might just fill a niche--certainly as a mid to long range commuting vehicle for single occupants.

But sometimes I shudder when I see stuff like the segway and these vehicles. Motorized wheelchairs are necessary for many people with motor disabilities but are the rest of us growing so lazy--thinking of Joseph's motorized barcalounger here--that we're never going to walk or bicycle again? Is this our future?


Posted by: Mr. Farlops on 14 Jul 05

Joseph Willemssen:  Commuter Cars claims a range of 60-80 miles for the Tango on 25 Optima Yellow Tops.  If these are the batteries I think they are, they are rated at 55 Ah @ 12 V, or 660 Wh nominal.  This yields 16.5 kWh capacity and a worst-case efficiency of 275 Wh/mile.

This is hardly "inefficient".


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 14 Jul 05

Great SF cover, Farlops!

The manly, muscular pedestrian looks more than a little crazed. There may be a little haughty Ayn Rand ubermench in him . . . or perhaps he's just spent an hour in the display-clogged aisles of the Utopiaberg Wal-Mart, wriggling past the ample butts of future hip replacement patients in search of that walking stick and manly he-purse.


Posted by: Stefan Jones on 14 Jul 05

"This is hardly "inefficient"."

Compared to something that weighs 1,000 lbs less it is. I wasn't speaking about absolute efficiency, just the fact that they intentionally made the Tango heavier in order to make it more stable (since it's narrow and tall).


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 14 Jul 05

It's a hybrid Cushman. Parking cops and campus security services will love them.


Posted by: Mars Saxman on 14 Jul 05

Intentionally heavy?  The Tango carries only 25 batteries, to the tzero's 28; the weight of the vehicle is set by the battery load for the desired range and power, not the other way.

If it was powered by Li-ion batteries and then was ballasted to 2500 pounds, you'd have a point.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 14 Jul 05

"If it was powered by Li-ion batteries and then was ballasted to 2500 pounds, you'd have a point."

Well, that *has* been my point. The developer of the Tango said he explicity chose lead acid partly for its weight relative to other batteries, since he needed as much ballast as possible to keep the center of gravity low.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 14 Jul 05

Another way to look at it is - how much does a crotch-rocket motorycle weigh that can have two riders and perform at least as well as the Tango? Forgetting about safety and merely looking at performance, how much more does the Tango weigh than the motorcycle?

It's one aspect of what I raised, but the main point was that we're overengineering some of these microcars because they want to push them in to environments (like interstate highways) to which they may not be naturally suited, given what's on the road right now (namely big, wide, heavy automobiles).

The Tango is a very clever solution, but it's forced to be heavy for its size because of what they're trying to do with it.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 14 Jul 05

The developer of the Tango said he explicity chose lead acid partly for its weight relative to other batteries, since he needed as much ballast as possible to keep the center of gravity low.
Do you have a cite for that?

It looks to me to be the other way around:  the cost of 16.5 kWh of anything else, like NiMH, would have been on the order of $20,000 just for the cells.  He's designing the whole vehicle to sell for $19,000 in volume, so the only battery technology available at that price point is PbSO4.  Using them for ballast is just a case of having lemons and making lemonade.

Sure, you can make a crotch-rocket a lot lighter than the Tango.  It's not going to be electric or have a roll cage.  Did you have a point to make?


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 14 Jul 05

Keep it civil, please.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 14 Jul 05

Correction:  16.5 kWh of NiMH currently costs around $7000 retail.  That is still too much to sell as part of a $19,000 vehicle.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 14 Jul 05

Jamais - when exactly are you going to start enforcing the insults and abuse rule? I can't make my points any clearer than I have, yet I keep getting flamed for no reason that makes any sense. This happens time after time.

The ridiculous thing is, it's just an observation that doesn't dismiss electric vehicles (which I know are very dear to some people), just observes that certain designs end up being pretty radical in trying to adapt to environments to which they may not naturally be suited. I really can't see how that is controversial, provocative, or troubling for anyone -- probably since it's simple and true.

I would really appreciate it if we could stop going through this whole conflict pattern, especially considering we're all on the "worldchanging team" (ie, the same side), if you will.


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 15 Jul 05

Actually, here's an easier solution - I'm taking off.

I love what you're doing here and best of luck to you and Alex and all the other Worldchanging folks. There's nothing more important than providing a positive vision for a better future and this site is essentially the best there is for that.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to have posted here.

Talk to you later.

-JW


Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 15 Jul 05

I am honestly shocked that anyone would look at a zero-emissions vehicle with a full roll cage, suggest a non-ZEV with no safety features whatsoever as a "superior alternative" because it's lighter, and then act wounded when they are called on their misrepresentation.  This sort of dishonesty is breathtaking.

I am also shocked that the administration here implicitly supports nonsense against facts because asking for questionable assertions to be supported by something tangible isn't quite "civil".

The real world doesn't care about political sensibilities; if you misconceive or mis-implement the physical or engineering (or economic) principles needed to make a concept work, it won't.  Tolerate sloppiness in such things, and the most significant WorldChanging you're going to accomplish is your own bankruptcy.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 15 Jul 05

E-P, it is possible to disagree and to correct misinformation without direct or implicit insult. Your previous post was fine up to the "Do you have a point to make?" -- and that's what I was referring to with the "Keep it civil."

I would hope that neither of you take off and stop commenting here, as you both have made useful contributions to the evolution of ideas on this site in your time here.

What I do want to see, however, is people who are ultimately on the same side of an argument giving each other a bit more benefit of the doubt.

Joseph, peel back some of the way E-P said what he did, and he has some real questions, e.g., where did the Tango designers refer to using lead-acid for its weight properties?

E-P, stop focusing for a moment on what seems to me was meant as a hand-wave example and consider what Joseph was really asking: to what degree are these electric micro-car designs being forced into an unsuitable niche?

When I say keep it civil, I mean all of you: argue the ideas, not the suspected intent or personality.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 15 Jul 05

Argue the ideas?  I love nothing better.  It's when someone mangles the ideas, inverts cause and effect and otherwise makes a conceptual muddle out of something that ought to be clear that I start demanding specifics to anchor things back to reality.

It's fashionable in many circles to play fast and loose with vague concepts, but these things always fall flat when there's an attempt to reduce them to practice; society may forgive or even esteem certain failings, but Nature doesn't.  Vague handwaving is part of the problem, and I'm going to be on the side of the facts (and their inconvenient details) for exactly that reason.

Sometimes questions have to be sharpened to points before they're taken with sufficient seriousness.


Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 15 Jul 05

It's not okay to sharpen a question to a point if your intention is to stick somebody in the eye with it.

E-P, I'm saying this to you as a friend - really:

You were a jerk. You should apologize. You can't argue your way out of this.

If we lose Joseph because of this argument, we all lose a lot, including you. Each of us is only as strong as all of us.

I'm not singling you out or picking on you. We have all been jerks. I'm really good at it. It's okay - admit it, apologize and move on.

There's a real, breathing, living human being out there in cyberspace, one with feelings, and as worthy of respect and consideration as you. Joseph should realize that about you too.

The bright green future we're all working to create has to include kindness and civility, or it won't work.

I love the friction of ideas, the give and take, the feedback, the corrections to my own murky thinking. But believe it or not, that can be done with love, not with cruelty.

I'd like to hear more from the poet side of you for a while.

In friendship and peace,
David


Posted by: David Foley on 15 Jul 05

Please, folks, let's move this conversation to email.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 15 Jul 05

What is needed is more of an enclosed 4 wheel motocycle - Convertable.

Think of a shrunk down red sports car convertable, with 2 tandem seats.

A removable hard top for high security and the winter months, a nice soft black rag-top for the summer.

Boost the wheel size and give it 4 wheel steering (spin-in-place turning).

Put the windows and the top down and feel like a motor cycle! Rain? Trip to the Market? put the goodies in the back seat and button up the top.

I am surprised Honda, Suzuki, or Kawasaki having come out with a nice mini-bike, convertable motor car.

It would work, make it look stylish and sexy, and people who buy motor bikes would buy minicar convertables. Even more so, because a lot of people love bikes, but hate the bad weather...

I remember having a Honda bike and filling the gas tank - $0.70 a week for fuel.

A mini-convertable would be a big hit. I would buy one for me and one for my girl.


Posted by: Go Mini Convertable on 21 Jul 05



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