A recent Facebook post about the long-delayed Elio mini-car started a discussion about the dearth of similar vehicles out there for American drivers. Many of these cars have been pitched for over a decade, but just can’t seem to get the financing or support to actually achieve serious (or, in most cases, any) production and distribution. And that’s a shame, because they are missing what may be their only opportunity to shine… before it will be too late for them to run on American roads at all.
Mini- and micro-cars would fit a wonderful niche on American roads, mostly for the typically single-occupant commuter or short errand driver. Some of them are projected to sell for less than US$8,000, which is a pretty attractive sum against the average American car ($25,000+), or even the “cheap” subcompact ($17,000+). Their small size and light weight would not only save on gas, but do less wear-and-tear on the roads, and be easier to maneuver in city traffic and park. They could also run on alternative power sources, like electricity or hydrogen, or be a gas-saving hybrid.
Though no one’s done a real positive PR job on them yet (since they mostly don’t exist yet), it wouldn’t take much to get many Americans on-board with them. But presently, Americans have a completely different kind of car on their minds.
The U.S. is presently ankle-deep in an ever-rising discussion about the development of the self-driving car. Though they don’t represent a game-changer yet, self-driving car technology is less than a decade away from being capable of driving on any American road, in any condition, and doing it safer than human drivers. And when Americans realize all the things they can do with their time while the car drives itself, and be safer besides, it won’t take them long to come around to allowing the cars to do all the work.
Eventually, self-driving cars will become so much safer and more efficient than human drivers that manually driving a vehicle will become forbidden to the average American, except perhaps in very rare emergencies (and maybe not even then; our communications systems and new regulations may require trained remote operators to step in and pilot the car to safety.) Suddenly, Americans won’t be allowed to drive on most (or all) American roads. Manually-driven cars will be illegal to drive, or only licensed specialty operators—not average Americans—will be allowed to drive specialty vehicles, like motorcycles. We may be among the last generations of Americans who all have, or can get, a license to drive.
And this is where the mini- and micro-cars come in… because almost all of them are designed to be driven manually. Many, like the ever-delayed Persu, use the thrill of manual driving as a selling point. If they finally reach the market, and if they’re lucky, they will be allowed to remain on the streets as something akin to motorcycles (which may never, ever achieve the status of self-driving vehicle—though even that may be possible). But if they arrive just as Americans are facing an imminent reality of no longer driving their own cars, the mini- and micro-cars may have no American market.
So, while we’re in that holding pattern between driving vehicles that haven’t changed much since they started coming off Henry Ford’s assembly line, and cars that will do the driving for us, I would urge the developers of mini- and micro-cars to get off the stick, and get their vehicles to market. I’d advise you to do sexy stuff to them: Put electric power plants in; fit them with the latest in communications systems; develop new interior treatments, new exterior shells, smart paint, foot massagers, candy dispensers, streaming porn libraries, anything that will pull the public in. Make your vehicles desirable, and get them out on the roads.
Because this may be your last chance.