Packing people into metal tubes is a very efficient way of moving them from Point A to Point B efficiently. It is also a great way to make sure infectious diseases are transmitted from one to another. Cities rely on buses, trams, and subways, but the coronavirus has caused many to rethink the whole idea of public transportation in an age where pandemics are a constant threat.
KIA is one company that has considered the future and it thinks inexpensive, ultra-compact, short range electric cars may be a viable alternative to public transportation. Emilio Herrera, chief operating officer of KIA Motors Europe, tells Auto Express his company has noticed the increase in the use of private vehicles since the coronavirus pandemic began.
“People want to feel safe today. We saw that very clearly from a survey that was done after coronavirus in China, which showed people had moved from public transportation to private transportation. That was very clear — 34 per cent of private use before the crisis to 65 per cent. So 65 per cent of people in China would choose their private car. The reason is because they feel safe in their car and they feel unsafe in public transportation.
“I think if people had a choice in London, they’d choose to drive their own car,” Herrara added. “We are already studying a proposal on having very small micro vehicles for urban use. We see a real potential. Those vehicles we are targeting are EVs — 100 per cent electric with a small range, but being used only in an urban environment.”
Herrera suggests his company is looking at the Citroen Ami as a model for its new micro-car. The Ami is a Europe-only micro electric vehicle with a range of just 71 km and a top speed of 45 km/h. It is about as basic as a wheelbarrow. It costs a mere €6000 to purchase, but is available on a subscription basis. Drivers can also rent one by the minute or opt for a rental period of a week, a month, or longer.
“It’s something we’re investigating at this point in time because we believe it could be an alternative to public transportation, providing we can deliver it at a very similar cost to public transportation,” Herrera says. “So that means a subscription model, or you can rent it for a week or month, so it needs to be pretty flexible like public transportation. We’re really looking at very low monthly prices for subscription, so it can really compete — and the Ami is one of the vehicles we’ve looked at.”
Unlike the Ami, the KIA offering would be available in world markets. “The idea with this project is for it to be global, not just for Europe. It will have the synergies of scale to ensure that this vehicle would be available at a very cheap price for consumers.”
Corporate cousin Hyundai has announced it is partnering with California startup Canoo to create a new EV platform. Canoo is focusing primarily on developing vehicles that are suitable for ride-sharing and ride-hailing services. Could the new interest by KIA in micro-EVs tap into that collaborative initiative? “We could eventually share the platform with Hyundai,” Herrera says. A rendering of the proposed KIA micro-EV has been shared exclusively with Auto Express, but you can view it at this link.
Pluses & Minuses
The prospect of an ultra-compact EV substituting for public transportation has some surface appeal until you analyze it more fully. Imagine all those hundreds of thousands of commuters who use rapid transit every day suddenly zipping around city streets in tiny cars. Where will they all park? Where will they charge? If they are used for ride-hailing, how will they be cleaned and disinfected between uses?
It’s possible a business case can be made for such vehicles — according to Herrera, people in China are already doing so — but replacing public transportation with micro-cars seems a bit of a stretch. The coronavirus will definitely alter the way people live and work. It’s good that companies like KIA are imaging what the future might look like. Yet it seems too early to predict any long term trends in transportation that might emerge from the pandemic.