Remember the folding car? If you’re of a certain age — or just watch a lot of Hulu or Nick at Nite — you probably have the folding (and flying) space car from the Jetsons emblazoned in your mind. If not, here it is on video:



It’s easy to draw a cartoon of a car that folds into a suitcase, but harder when having to conform to the actual laws of physics. I've seen some novel but wholly impractical concepts, such as the fabric-bodied car, powered by flashlight batteries, in this video. But now a practical folding car appears to be on its way from the Hiriko group and the MIT Media Labs. First shown at a European Commission meeting in Brussels earlier this year, it’s a Ford Explorer-sized glass-topped electric city car that, when shrunk, takes up about a third of a parking space. What basically happens is the front passenger section tips forward so the rear trunk section can slide underneath.


To make this work, regular controls had to be replaced with drive-by-wire, and the accelerator, steering wheel and brake are gone in favor of an aerospace-type yoke that (as in a Segway), is moved forward to move the vehicle forward, and back for reversing. Left and right are for steering. Here's a closer look on video:



Just like in the Jetsons’ car (and the 1950s BMW Isetta, for that matter), the driver climbs out through the glass canopy. It’s strictly for an urban driver, with top speed of only about 31 mph, and range of 75 miles on quick-recharge (15 minutes) lithium-ion batteries. Electric motors are located at the car’s four wheels. It can be registered as a quadricycle or motorcycle in some markets.


I love the idea of the folding car, because it answers a question that’s been dogging me: Sure, electric cars are “urban vehicles,” with their short range are well-suited for city driving cycles. But cities don’t feature split-level homes with garages — people live in tight quarters in apartments. So where’s the charging going to happen? Parking garages and, to a lesser extent, pay lots, offer some kind of solution, but not everybody can afford those choices.


If you could get cars more tightly packed — three to a space, for instance — then city charge farms could work better. I’ve seen the concept of autonomous-driving cars dropping off their passengers, then boarding an elevator to be put away in a high rise until needed again. That works — but only if the tech does. Having the cars fold up for storage makes it work better. “A systematic solution to major societal changes,” said Jose Manual Barroso, the president of the European Commission, at the time of the unveiling. You couldn't say as much for the fascinating concept at right, a folding car that looks cool but would never make it on the road.


The Fold, as it’s known, has its genesis in a MIT Media Lab project sponsored by GM. Writes Steve Ashley for the BBC, “The discussion led to the concept of a small EV that could be folded and stacked in line, and shared by multiple users in urban environments in Asia, North America and Europe.”


The Hiriko Driving Mobility Group, based in the Basque region of Spain, visited the MIT lab in 2009, and leveraged some Spanish government funding to produce what became the Hiriko Fold. According to Kent Larson, director of the Media Lab’s Changing Places Group, everything is a tight fit. “It’s designed more like an iPhone than a tower computer,” he told Ashley.


The cool thing is that the Fold is actually going into production in Europe next year, priced at around $16,400. Trucks and convertibles are envisioned.


For the concept to work optimally, there has to be a Fold system. Charging garages have to be set up around them, optimized to plug in three of these babies in a confined space. What, you want to talk about safety? C’mon, this is a blog post, that’s in part two.


Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

From 'Jetsons' to your driveway: A folding car
Modern electronic controls help make science-fiction visions like the Hiriko Fold possible. It's an Explorer-sized electric car pod that folds to fit into a thi