The pressures to make cars cleaner and more economical are clear. Environmental, congestion and economic concerns have shifted car sales towards smaller cars like city cars and super-minis. Increasingly, small, cleaner cars are getting more attractive: better made and with more features that used to be the preserve of the big saloons (e.g., luxury brands, convertibles, leather seats, cruise control). Small no longer means cheap and nasty. Nor indeed unsafe.
Cars are a major purchase and people naturally tend to want a car to cover all eventualities: from the commute to the family holiday. Unfortunately, this often means buying a big car for the rare occasion, leaving the car buyer with a car much bigger (and therefore less efficient) than is needed for the regular journeys. According to the National Travel Survey 2009, 85% of commuting car trips are made in cars with a single occupant. For these motorists, what is the point in driving around with three empty seats, and paying for the privilege?
At this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show, Volkswagen launched the Nils concept vehicle, a single-seat electric vehicle designed for commuting and city driving. While the car does have some the usual concept car traits that will never make it into a production vehicle, the Nils concept is not just science fiction. VW’s attempt at shrinking the car is part of a trend for micro vehicles which will reduce the costs and carbon impacts of motoring, are more suited to our congested roads, are easier to park and will match our travel patterns more closely. They’re not for everyone of course, and not all the time, but the number of solutions to the ‘problem’ is growing.
While new fuels, hybrids and emissions regulations have critical roles to play in making cars cleaner, another way to reduce the impacts and costs of motoring is through vehicles specifically designed for common, short, single occupant journeys. Perhaps even smaller vehicles, which put fewer demands on the engines or electric motors, can be a useful part of the mix? Their small scale also means significantly less resources – materials, energy and labour – are needed to make them in the first place. Smart was one of the first manufacturers to venture into this territory, but there are others now and it is an interesting new part of the market. Renault has the Twizy EV, a two seat micro-car. Piaggio has the MP3, a three wheeled scooter that can variously (depending on the gap between the front wheels) be ridden on a motorcycle licence, a car licence or with a CBT certificate. Audi has the Urban Concept, which is similar to VW’s Nils. Gordon Murray’s T.25 and T.27 vehicles have demonstrated how well less-is-more can work. As part of new vehicle efficiency, it is worth borrowing from the legendary Lotus Formula One designer Colin Chapman: “add lightness”.