Narrow Cars + Carsharing Future

Now with carshare services becoming available in all major world cities, the time to offer a consumer a vehicle slimmed down to their main uses—but not all their uses—has come.

The automotive industry is now creating the most energy-efficient vehicles ever made. While the level of innovation in creating eco-friendly drivetrains and lightweight bodies is amazing, unfortunately the majority of modern automobiles are larger in size than they need to be—resulting with an inefficient use of urban land. In our new age of Mobility on Demand (MoD), there is an opportunity to create a new class of narrow or tandem car that carries two passengers and that can be coupled with a carshare service that enables the rental of a larger vehicle when needed.

Most American cities are full of large cars being driven with few occupants. Denver, for example, has 1.1 people / cars on average. Given that the average automobile has five seats, the Denver system is operating at a 20% load factor. That is a very inefficient system. For comparison purposes it should be noted that a major airline could only stay in business one week operating at that level of inefficiency!

In the past it made sense for mobility consumers to own a car with far more capacity than they need, just for those rare occasions they need to carry a lot more people or cargo. But now with carshare services becoming available in all major world cities, the time to offer a consumer a vehicle slimmed down to their main uses—but not all their uses—has come.

Highway lanes can be split in two for narrow cars. With a narrow footprint, we can park many more narrow cars in the space allotted for conventional cars. And anyone that knows aerodynamics understands the benefit of having only 50% of the surface area as regards the amount of fuel (or electricity) needed to move the vehicle through the air.

A few years back I wrote an article discussing the potential for new first- and last-mile solutions to make transit a better option for the public. I found it interesting to receive this very interesting comment from a reader (in 2012):

“Any suggestions on fixing transportation in sprawling cities like Los Angeles? I commute by bus and train, have optimized my route, and it still takes me 70 minutes to go about 20 miles (freeway equivalent). I’d like to see the splitting of a few freeway lanes in half and using them for commuting only in one-passenger vehicles like the Tango or motorcycles. Dedicated lanes for small light vehicles would make people more comfortable commuting in them and would be a nice incentive to travel more efficiently.”

The Tango is a narrow 1-seater from an inventor in Washington State. It’s a high-performing concept vehicle that uses the heavy weight of conventional battery packs to serve as a “ballast” to hold the vehicle to the road. The Tango literature that shows the cars “lane splitting” is really interesting to see. The Tango styling has room for improvement.

There have been some interesting narrow or tandem car designs proposed over the past decade. The Nissan Land Glider is one that stands out to me, as the 1.1-meter wide vehicle incorporates “leaning” technology to offer top performance. Unfortunately, I do not think Nissan has plans to manufacture the Land Glider at this time.

Back in 1998, Volvo’s California Design Center began developing a tandem car that has seats for two passengers. Like the Land Glider, these concepts offer plenty of room for commuters and can also enable the driver to take a child to school. For me, the interesting part of Volvo’s Tandem concept is that the company was able to design a smaller narrow vehicle and offer tremendous passenger safety, as they do in every Volvo. (I expect advances in new connected car technologies will also offer to make narrow cars safe).

A different approach to right-sizing personal mobility comes from the start-up Lit Motors, which is developing more of a cycle-car. Their C1 is an enclosed motorcycle utilizing gyroscopic technology for self-balancing. As a two-wheeler, their concept doesn’t fit into an existing class of vehicles. Motorcycles are generally not enclosed, and the operator needs to wear a helmet. I am not sure of how Lit Motors will certify their vehicles, but there are many challenges to their approach. Although they should get kudos for trying to develop a new, highly efficient vehicle concept!

If the narrow car becomes a common new type of vehicle, and consumers begin to own a narrow car and rent a larger vehicle when needed, then I imagine we will begin to see new “Car-Hopper” stations, centers where one vehicle is exchanged for another as needed. 


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Dan Sturges is mobility design consultant for team red and has been supporting “transformative” transportation projects for nearly 30 years.  He trained as a car designer, worked as an entrepreneur to bring to market a new intermediate vehicle category. He supports a wide range of vehicle design and 

mobility planning efforts for both government and corporate entities.