Sun, Jan 22, 2012 - Page 11 News List

European electric car scheme aims to narrow social divisions

A public mobility project shows how the continent can use innovation to help it move out of a tough financial spot, as well as improve social cohesion

By Randeep Ramesh  /  The Guardian

When European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso launches the Hiriko electronic car this month, he aims to answer a question being asked by much of the rest of the world: After the euro, what is the continent for?

Hiriko, an electric vehicle developed in Spain, aspires to transform city transport. It is aiming to do for electric cars what London’s public bicycle sharing scheme, “Boris bikes,” named after London Mayor Boris Johnson, have done for pedal cycles.

The idea is that a local authority owns a fleet of Hiriko cars and rents one to people when they need it — for a small fee. Hiriko’s high-tech, on-board computers will mean that all the cars are instantly located by a smartphone, so they can be left anywhere, and the electric batteries mean they have zero emissions.

Both London’s bike scheme and Hiriko are “public mobility solutions.” Both are green transport. However, the big difference between them is that whereas London’s project involves a £190 million (US$296 million) contract to a private company, Serco, to supply and run the scheme, the EU will adopt Hiriko’s “social purpose” model.

The car will be built exclusively in deprived areas of cities that take up the scheme. And the technology will be owned by a social enterprise, with private sector companies often getting involved for free because they view the Hiriko as a test bed for the future. So far, Madrid has provided the Hiriko project with 50 million euros (US$65 million) and Spanish company Maser-Mic spent 3 million euros of its own money on the car’s “sat nav” system. Each car costs 12,500 euros.

The real insight of Hiriko is that it aims to change the way we live and do social good at the same time. It’s worth noting that the first city to trial Hiriko will be Malmo, Sweden’s third-largest city.

While Nordic countries are often cited as models of happy, equal, cohesive nations, officials in Malmo have long been concerned about the growing divide between the east and west parts of the city. It’s not that Malmo is poor — the former industrial powerhouse has become a center for architecture and design. However, while the city has got richer, its social indicators have gone into reverse.

Civil servants were aghast to find pollution and carbon dioxide levels rising at a time when child poverty in the city was growing. It’s a combustible mix. In Rosengard, an immigrant-rich, employment-low part of west Malmo, there have been clashes between local youths and police since unrest in 2008.

In April last year, cars and recycling stations were set alight, while firefighters who attempted to put out the fires were pelted with stones and fireworks.

To generate jobs and clean up the city, Malmo’s council will purchase three Hiriko cars to test the new form of transport. The idea is that by building them in Rosengard a whole system of support industries (such as designing apps for the on-board computer) will spread in poor areas.

Hiriko’s creators believe it is a solution to environmental and social problems — bridging deepening social divides. After Malmo, the plan is to introduce the car in Berlin, Barcelona, Vitoria-Gasteiz (the second-largest Basque city), San Francisco and Hong Kong. There have been exploratory talks with London.

“London would be a great city. It has the bicycle rental scheme, the congestion charge ... London’s large, rich with deprived areas,” said Carlos Fernandez Isoird, Hiriko’s technical coordinator.

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