I was given a Lego set when I was about four. It was a red car and it came with a mechanic who could fix it with a spanner. One of the things that I remember noticing about it was that there was only one seat. Cars in the real world always had four or five seats. All Lego cars had one. Drivers just travelled around by themselves.
Out in the streets I see a whole lot of people driving round in cars by themselves – but their cars don’t have one seat. They have four or five. They’re driving vehicles that are four times too big. This is a waste of fuel and of space. It’s over-capacity.
Sustainable transport does not begin with cars. But where cars are needed, we should learn something from Lego and have more tiny cars with one seat in them.
I’ve written about this before and it’s hardly a new idea. There have been waves of tiny cars in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. There’s a gap of a couple of decades and then some early 2000s examples, such as the G-Wiz and the Tango T600. Nobody really mourns their failure to catch on, and plenty of small car models are bordering on a joke or were horrendously dangerous. And yet the idea won’t go away.
I reckon it’s a good one, and with a greater diversity of manufacturers bringing cars to market, and the maturing of the electric vehicle as a technology, perhaps their time has come. The tiny cars being made now are learning from past failure and are – to my mind at least – a good deal more promising than previous efforts. To make the point, here are five practical examples.
Drawing direct inspiration from the past, here’s the Microlino. It’s from the same Swiss inventor as the Micro scooter, and it has room for two adults. You can park it front-on to the kerb and step out onto the pavement.
You can fit two of them in each car parking space – imagine how much space we could save in cities if more cars were correctly sized for the number of occupants?
The Carver Electric leans into corners like a bike and isn’t much wider. It aims to combine the safety of a car with the manoeuvrability of a motorbike, slicing through the traffic to get commuters to work effortlessly.
Buses reduce traffic even more of course, but smaller cars take up less space on the roads and can help to reduce congestion.
My daughter really wanted us to get a Carver until she saw the City Transformer, and this is the car she now imagines herself driving in the future. It looks like this on the road, and then the wheels and flared arches retract when it parks, so that you can get four of them lined up on a single parking space.
It’s a good example of innovation around EVs. The drivetrain is so much simpler, there are fewer moving parts, and it opens up new possibilities.
This slightly squashed-looking vehicle is the Eas-E, a new electric microcar from India. It was announced a couple of months ago and it’s the car that prompted me to revisit the idea of tiny cars.
If microcars are going to make a difference, they’ll have the biggest impact if they catch on in the polluted megacities of India, China or Brazil. Indeed, China’s fastest selling EV is the very small Wuling mini-EV – though I haven’t included it here because it has four seats.
Finally, here’s the no-frills Citroen Ami, one of a few tiny cars from France (the Renault Twizy is one of the most succesful electric microcars). At £7,600 it’s notable for being the cheapest new car on the market in the UK and that’s another key point: tiny cars are cheap.
The Ami is already being used in car clubs in Paris, and microcars may well find a role as shared cars as well as for private motoring.
There are others I could have chosen, such as Italy’s Biro or X-Raam. There are a dozen more very small two seaters I could mention, from several different countries, all of them electric. China is making small EVs in numbers nobody else can match, and may come to dominate the sector.
As always, they’re not going to be for everyone. They’re mostly for cities. Families will need something larger. From a sustainability point of view we’re still better off walking, cycling or taking public transport. But where cars have a role, they should be no bigger than necessary.
Perhaps this time the idea will stick.