PHOTO CAPTION: Lumeneo Smera: the right idea at the wrong time?

Hyundai Planning Single Seat EV

Beside promising more electric-drive automobiles, Hyundai reported working on a single seat electric car. Here's where they can start.

Published: 09-Mar-2016

Within six months of going on sale in the Spring of 2013, the tiny French startup, Lumeneo, was forced to declare bankruptcy. Instead of the 500 SMERA electric runabouts they had hoped to sell, they only sold ten. It was a sad ending for a promising electric vehicle that not only could have helped reduce Paris' chronic air pollution if deployed in sufficient numbers but also addressed its sclerotic traffic congestion through its narrow, single-seat planform. It might also have been a lot of fun to drive.

Two years after the SMERA was first unveiled in 2009, Volkswagen entered its own "con-lution" (congestion + pollution) fighter: the NILS. Also a single-seat electric car, it popped up as an interesting concept in 2011, only to disappear into the musty vaults of time. That car is depicted below.

VW NILS single seat electric concept car

Succeeding generations of single-seat concepts have appeared from time-to-time in Japan from Toyota (i-Road), Nissan ( LandGlider) and Honda (Micro-Commuter); and in Europe from Audi (Urban) and Renault (Twizy). To date, only the i-Road and Twizy have been produced in any mentionable numbers, the former for various carshare trialsM, the latter in actual commercial consumer sales.

Before these in America there as the Corbin Sparrow and the Tango by CommuterCar. The Sparrow is no longer in production and the Tango continues to try and find a market. At present, the only potentially viable single-seat candidates are the EVM 17 from Canada, and Arcimoto from Portland, Oregon.

Yet, despite the high attrition rate for the class, Hyundai is said to be working on their own electric single seater according to media reports coming out of the Geneva car show. Beyond that, we know little else, though we can surmise what form it may take depending on what assumptions we make.

The first question to ask is: What's the mission of the vehicle? If we assume that it's intended mainly for urban use, then that will pretty much dictate its range and speed. A 350 km/h supercar is not needed where traffic during rush hour bogs down to the pace of an 18th century horse and carriage culture. The average speed in London, for example during morning and evening rush hour is about the same as it was during the reign of Queen Victoria before the advent of the motor car. Since there's little 'need for speed' in such conditions, big motors and large battery packs are pointless.

What is needed is protection from the weather and good visibility: to see and be seen. Low slung, inches off the pavement platforms aren't necessary, neither is much streamlining. It only starts to become important at speeds above 40 mph.

Since we're talking about a vehicle not much wider than a bicycle, stability becomes important. A high, narrow vehicle is more prone to tipping over in a turn than one with a low, wide stance. CommuterCar's Tango solved the problem with heavy batteries low to the ground. The SMERA, i-Road, and LandGlider achieve it by leaning, bicycle-like, into the turn.

The next question is: For whom is the car intended? Is it meant for individual private owners, shared vehicle programs, autonomous hire car services (robotic Uber vehicles)? Each application would have differing needs and wants criteria.

Of course, we know they will be electric, so the question is battery or fuel cell or a hybrid of both? If battery only, how and where are they charged since parking is always at a premium an any city. If hydrogen fuel cell, where do you refuel them and whose responsible is it? After the first fuel cell cars were introduced nearly a decade and half ago, there are still only a relative handful of hydrogen stations in the world with most of them located in Japan.

Hyundai engineers will have to answer the question of materials: out of what will the cars be made? Toyota actually showed an electric concept car in Italy recently made out of native woods from Japan. Morgan's EV3 uses Ash wood in its frame (recall that the RAF's famed Mosquito fighter bomber was made entirely of wood, as was Howard Hughes' Hercules seaplane, erroneously dubbed the "Spruce Goose." Is still the world's largest airplane.

Or will they use traditional steel or aluminum or more exotic materials, the goal being to reduce weight, which translates into smaller batteries and motors and thereby lower costs. BMW's i3 makes extensive use of carbon fiber with that objective in mind, as well as improve passenger safety. The now-forgotten Th!nk City electric car used lots of dent and corrosion-proof plastics over a welded steel frame. How will they be assembled? Will some parts be 3D printed? Might the cars be sent as "kits" for local assembly by small factories rather than on today's sprawling, robotic, centralized assembly lines?

But maybe the biggest question of all is this: Is the time right for such a vehicle? Renault has enjoyed some commercial success with the Twizy. In the two years after its launch in 2012, nearly 15,000 units have been sold in Europe. Hyundai has come a long ways since the days when it was best know for it's stodgy styling and industry disrupting ten year warranty. It's cars are hot sellers in North America with styling to match.

When they do introduce the one-person electric runabout, it likely will be in its home country and tailored primarily for that market, followed by Europe, and then lastly North America where for the time being big cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks still reign supreme.

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