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Tech by VICE

Are Tiny Robot Pod Cars the Future of City Driving?

The Hiriko, MIT's new urban robo-car, is just 100 inches long. Also, it basically transforms into a shopping car. Which means three of the little pod mobiles can fit in a single parking space, and that they'll prove ideal for slinking around city...

by Brian Merchant
Jul 12 2012, 3:00pm

The Hiriko, MIT’s new urban robo-car, is just 100 inches long. Also, it basically transforms into a shopping cart. Which means three of the little pod mobiles can fit in a single parking space, and that they’ll prove ideal for slinking around city streets. MIT’s Changing Places research group designed them to supplement mass transit, and imagines small fleets docking at various nodes around big cities.

And that’s the best part, as Pacific Standard explains, “for parking they collapse to just 60 inches, and nest together like shopping carts. Drivers use them like shared bikes, picking up a car at a Hiriko depot near where they're coming from, and dropping it at one near their destination.” The idea is to address the "last mile" problem of mass transit. The cars "might be most useful at the edges of cities where the transit network is sparse," explains architect Kent Larson, director of the MIT research group. "In an inner city where it's very walkable to begin with and then you have good trams or subways or buses, you don't need the vehicles so much. But at the edges you have a desperate need for additional mobility."

These fellas are intended to pick up the slack between major transit lines in still-densely populated areas, not to serve as your primary mode of commuter transport. Imagine using one to run errands around Brooklyn, wherever the G train can’t take you (so pretty much everywhere), or across the outer rings of San Francisco.

Twenty prototypes are being manufactured in Spain, though PSMag says it’ll be several use before they’re sent out to the first batch of cities, which will probably include San Francisco, Barcelona, Berlin and Hong Kong.

So, do we need these little transformer robo-shopping-cart-car hybrids? I dunno. They will ostensibly be cheap—like $16,000 per unit—but unless they’re cheaper than the cost of adding an additional bus route in an urban area, it’s still hard to see how they’ll effectively solve the “last mile” problem more effectively than other already available forms of transit. Remember, they’d have to be regularly maintained and repaired, and measures enforced to make sure they weren’t stolen.

But people love pod cars; their futuristic aesthetic activates some Jetson-esque cultural detritus still lingering from past days of pining for the future. It’s why people are in irrational awe of Personal Rapid Transit, which is like the Hiriko without independent mobility—they’re artifacts of a nostalgic future we assume we should still be reaching for. They look cool.

That said, regardless of the source of our fascination with the vehicles, said fascination does come with some actuarial benefits—they can get citizens jazzed about city transit for example, bolster tourism, and so on. If San Francisco so much as runs a test program with 12 Hirikos, that’s instant headlines. But it remains to be seen whether they’ll be a key part of citywide transit as well.

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