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

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There was a lot of excitement in 2012, when the Hiriko car was unveiled at this event at European Union headquarters in Brussels. At the time, 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."

This story is the latest in NPR's Cities Project.

A few years ago, engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology debuted a design, a decade in the making, for a car that would transform urban transportation.

They called it the CityCar. It's a small, electric two-seat pod, with "robot wheels." It looks like a futuristic Volkswagen Beetle.

With zero tailpipe emissions, the idea was that it would not pollute. With four wheels that maneuver 120 degrees individually, it could turn on a dime. The door is on the front. So, when parked front-end-in, drivers and passengers could avoid stepping into traffic. And the whole car would fold up — such that seven vehicles could fit into two normal-sized parking spaces.

The cars would be shared, not owned — parked at train stations where people could pick them up, as people do with a bike share. The goal was to give people more options to avoid owning a car.

Kent Larson, director of MIT's City Science Initiative, told NPR the CityCar was a complete rethink of the automobile, aimed at making cities more livable.

"I have seen estimates that in New York City up to 40 percent of the energy consumed by automobiles is by people circling the block looking for a parking space, so you eliminate all of that wasted energy, all of that wasted time and you remove vehicles off of the street," Larson said.

There was a tremendous amount of excitement about the design, and in Europe some leaders saw the CityCar as the solution to many urban ills.

The rise and fall of the CityCar illustrates the challenges of inventing the transportation of the future.

The Production Phase And Public Money

In 2008, a consortium of small companies in Spain got together to transform the CityCar into a commercial reality.

The Hiriko project promised to create green jobs at a time when Spain's manufacturing sector was hemorrhaging. It had the power to transform economically depressed fishing villages in the Basque Country into hubs of high-tech creativity, its backers said.

They renamed the car "Hiriko," which means "urban" in the Basque language, Euskera. Entrepreneurs created a nonprofit parent company, Afypaida, to manage public money pouring into the project.

At the height of Spain's economic crisis, the Spanish government pledged some $16 million, and the Basque local authorities gave about $2.2 million. The European Union also devoted millions from a European social fund, for a total Hiriko budget exceeding $80 million.

"This is a small, folding and smart electric car, but it is also much more than that. It is European social innovation at its best," said the then-president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, at a 2012 event debuting the car in Brussels. He heralded it as a trans-Atlantic "exchange between the world of science and the world of business."

Barroso climbed into the car and got a demonstration from Jesus Echave, the Spanish chairman of the Hiriko consortium. Cameras clicked and both men beamed.

That was 2012.

How The Project Fell Apart

Now three years later, Echave and six associates have been placed under formal investigation for alleged misuse of public funds and falsifying documents. Afypaida ceased operations in April 2013, and laid off all of its employees, some of whom are now suing for severance pay. The company is currently in receivership, with its assets frozen.

Ex-employees of Hiriko have since come forward to say that pieces of the prototype debuted in Brussels were held together with Velcro and superglue.

NPR reached out to all seven officials under indictment, either directly or through their companies or lawyers. All either refused to comment, or did not respond to multiple requests.

"They're politically well-connected businessmen with no prior experience building electric cars. They used this public money to line their own pockets," says Igor Lopez de Munain, a member of the Basque parliament who has been investigating the Hiriko case. "I believe they never had plans to bring these cars to market. It was all theater!"

But one of the project's chief engineers, Carlos Fernandez Isoird, told NPR that all of the money did indeed go to the project, and was not embezzled for personal use.

"It's expensive to bring a car from design to commercial viability. Ask GM or any of the big companies, and they'll tell you it takes more than 10 times the budget we had!" he says.

Fernandez Isoird described a web of seven small engineering firms, including his firm, Denokinn, each tasked with producing a different aspect of the Hiriko car — the exterior body, the robot wheels, etc.

"There were problems with a lack of unity in vision, and communication, among all those companies — too many moving parts," he says. "This wasn't a normal car. It was a mobility project. But a lot of the conventional engineers didn't understand that."

What Happened To The Hiriko

People involved with the project tell NPR that several prototypes were built in Spain. We tried to track down the original, which was based on the MIT design.

Several sources said they had last seen it at a warehouse in an industrial park on the outskirts of the Basque city of Vitoria-Gasteiz.

Today, the building seems abandoned, a flock of geese nesting at its entrance. Knocks at the door turned up no answer. The whereabouts of the Hiriko car remain a mystery.

MIT Moves On

Creators of the original CityCar didn't know where to find the Hiriko either and they emphasize that a firewall limits their involvement with the commercial production of their inventions. MIT is a nonprofit institution.

But the inventors are not in mourning. In fact, it's probably for the best, says team leader Kent Larson, because in the time it took to try to manufacture Hiriko, its technology has already become "obsolete."

He says autonomous vehicles will make the folding feature of the CityCar unnecessary.

"It was actually a great thing, because at that point we had all kinds of new ideas we wanted to explore," he says. "[We've] moved on from a vehicle that folds to save space, to one that doesn't ever need to be parked."

Larson is currently developing a new self-driving electric vehicle that would be almost constantly in motion, for people who don't own a car. It would drive itself — or you — around the city.

"We realized that perhaps the ideal urban vehicle is an ultralightweight one-person, three-wheel vehicle that's bikelike, not carlike. It operates on bike lanes, not roads ... and uses very inexpensive sensing and processing, rather than very expensive systems on highway-speed autonomous vehicles," he explained. "If you have a shared fleet of vehicles ... that serves a population appropriately at rush hour, then you have excess vehicles off-peak. So we transform the vehicle to move goods autonomously — packages."

So it could, say, pick you up from work — or pick up your groceries, without you.

They call it the PEV — the Persuasive Electric Vehicle. It would be low cost and lightweight, with three bicyclelike wheels. It looks a bit like a 21st century rickshaw.

Larson says this idea — like the CityCar — meets three key criteria for a Media Lab project.

"They need to have the potential of having impact. They need to be unique — can't duplicate what others have done or what you've done in the past. And they need to have some qualities of magic. They need to excite people and capture the imagination."

Larson says MIT will probably test a prototype of the PEV — a potentially city-changing new vehicle — in Europe.

"Our goal right now is to do a test next year ... and if it proves to be as successful as we think it will be, we'll work with a company to commercialize it or we'll spin off a startup to commercialize it," he says.

NPR's Elise Hu contributed to this story.

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