The world population is on a rapidly increasing trajectory, resulting in cities being built upwards with space on the ground in short supply. World leaders are driving towards greener and more sustainable transportation options, further thought is being put into ensuring improved fuel efficiency and a carbon footprint reduction is introduced to tackle air pollution, congestion and uphold the pledges made for the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016. We must look to alternative solutions, especially with automobiles remaining the preferred mode of transport and the leading cause of increased carbon emissions. The introduction of ridesharing apps was supposed to be a relief to carbon emissions, providing an alternative for the driver of the daily commute. Instead it has been found that the ‘rideshare solution’ attracts riders who would’ve ordinarily been using public transit, bikes or walking, causing 70% increase in CO2 compared to the rides they’ve displaced, as passengers turn to the more comfortable ride option. This is where the need for alternative modes of transport have come about. Enter the microcar.
What exactly are Microcars?
Back in the 1930s the effects of World War II were felt hard, the standard 5 seater car was a luxury that barely anyone could afford. The price was high and resources were in short supply. The solution? A tiny car which would meet mobility needs which was half the size price and therefore, half the price. As the name suggests, these are mini cars with traditionally three or four wheels and often have engines smaller than 700cc. They were referred to as bubble cars in the 1960s thanks to their rounded shape and are usually powered by either petrol or diesel engines, or more recently by batteries – forming the electric microcar. The small car was originally designed to seat 1 or 2 people and had no reverse gears, instead the driver had to exit the car and push or pull it to operate it. The modern microcar, however, has now been fitted with standard gears allowing the vehicle to be operated in both a forward and reverse manner.
Shared Microcar fleet in Singapore
The microcar is about to enter Singapore and looks to revolutionise the on-demand car leasing market. Singapore-based mobility startup QIQ has announced the launch of a shared microcar fleet known as ‘QIQ pods’. These vehicles will help transport commuters from their HDB flats to MRT stations by 2021. What’s better, you don’t even need to have a license to drive a QIQ pod. This semi-autonomous microcar will be available only to the residents of Punggol initially due to the long distance required to access its public transport network. This shared electric-car service is similar in concept to the existing BlueSG in Singapore, but a cheaper alternative. It is estimated to cost about $2 for an ad hoc half-hour ride, and a subscription fee between $30 to $50 a month for frequent users.
Unlike what we are used to, once you’ve finished your drive, the microcar can autonomously park itself at the nearest charging stations. All riders have to do is to leave their cars by the curb and the rest would be automatic. These microcars will be utilising a new technology, Geo-fencing, an integrated GPS system along with a camera vision to aid autonomous driving back to the charging points. A huge time saver when it comes to the inconvenience of finding parking spaces in overcrowded cities. If you are wondering where to find them; a human-driven car will be leading a convoy of driverless microcars through wireless communications ensuring their efficient distribution to areas in need of their services.
The entry of QIQ Pod’s is a second attempt for a microcar to enter the Singapore market since the two-seat microcar Renault Twizy, failed to gain approval for use in Singapore in 2014. This was due to not meeting the Land Transport Authority requirements where a motorcycle must have fewer than four wheels and weigh no more than 400kg and the Twizy weighed in at 474kg. The QIQ Pod varies from Twizy as it is much lighter (weighs less than 250kg and runs at a speed of only 40 km/h) . Makers are also claiming that this vehicle wouldn’t be any bigger than 2.4m long and 1m wide and hence won’t be taking up too much space on both roads and in car parks. So will this microcar be a hit or miss in Singapore?
Why should Microcars be encouraged?
The minute size of microcars offers many benefits, especially when navigating around an overcrowded planet. It’s narrower than some motorcycles, which means it will be able to zip past heavy traffic by lane splitting, or by riding between cars. These toy cars can fit into any parking space including motorcycle spots and could also be lifted by hand for convenient manoeuvring. It takes up such little space on roads and parking spots that we could park up to four such cars in one spot and obstacles could easily be avoided. Other than being pocket sized, microcars are also easier and fun to drive. What’s more? They are also extremely mileage-efficient with some microcars like the Microlino reaching up to 125 to 200km with a single charge.
Though their small size has many advantages, there are several disadvantages . These miniature cars are generally slow-moving with the QIQ pod’s top speed coming in at 45km/hr which could unknowingly cause congestion in crowded areas. In countries such as Singapore, where there are inadequate charging ports, electric Microcars can also be very inconvenient as this would mean drivers would have to go on a hunt for charging spots if existing ones are occupied.
From a consumer’s point of view, another concern that tends to spring up time and again is their safety in times of collision. People are dubious of how effectively this would protect them in the event of an accident. But manufacturers like Mini and Smart have come up with just the right solution to make these microcars as safe as possible. In contrast to traditional microcars without airbags, modern compact cars are manufactured with front and side airbags. These cars also have better braking and handling ability as compared to larger vehicles and hence the ability to avoid collisions tend to be better in these smaller vehicles.
The most obvious downside of these microcars, however, would be the small storage space. This is definitely not the car to take for shopping. Also, given that a safe and comfortable driving position is extremely crucial to any driver, the lack of space might pose a huge inconvenience, particularly to those who are tall since the headroom will be lower in these toy sized cars compared to normal vehicles.
Changing consumer preferences, scarcity of land, and rising clean air standards for automobiles have been the factors propelling the world towards electric and microcars. According to the UN, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2050. As these cities become more pedestrianised in the next few years, we will be needing more of these miniature vehicles to solve the problem of pollution and congestion. These microcars will be essential to people who cannot walk long distances as they will be able to use them for their travel to and from their home to the city centre. Is this then the small solution to the world’s big cities, maybe?