PHOTO CAPTION: Concept drawing of Hiriko electric cars.

Hiriko Electric Carshare More Than Just About Mobility

The real insight of Hiriko carshare scheme is that it aims to change the way we live and do social good at the same time.

Published: 20-Jan-2012

When José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, launches the Hiriko electronic car next week, he aims to answer a question being asked by much of the rest of the world: after the euro, what is the continent for?

The electric vehicle, developed in Spain, aspires to transform city transport, doing for electric cars what London's "Boris bikes" 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 hi-tech, on-board computers will mean that all the cars are instantly located by a smart phone, 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. But the big difference between them is that whereas London's project involves a £190m contract to a private company, Serco, to supply and run the scheme, the European Union will adopt Hiriko's "social purpose" model. The car will be built exclusively in the 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 – while Madrid funded the Hiriko project with €15m (£13m), Spanish company Maser-Mic spent €3m of its own money on the car's "sat nav" system. Each car costs €12,500.

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 Malmö, Sweden's third largest city. While Nordic countries are often cited as models of happy, equal, cohesive nations, officials in Malmö have long been concerned about the growing divide between the east and west parts of the city. It's not that Malmö is poor – the former industrial powerhouse has become a centre for architecture and design. But 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 Rosengård, an immigrant-rich, employment-low part of west Malmö, there have been clashes between local youths and police since unrest in 2008. Last April, 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, Malmö's council will purchase three Hiriko cars to test the new form of transport. The idea is that by building them in Rosengård 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 Malmö, 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," says Carlos Fernandez Isoird, Hiriko's technical co-ordinator.

Hiriko's advantages are clear: whereas most companies have a short-term outlook, it sees a future transformed in 10 years' time. It's a "green shift" that creates jobs – breaking the link between economic progress and growing carbon dioxide emissions. This is one instance where Brussels leads, and Britain should follow.

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