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Cute cars with a serious mission: cut smog and gridlock in megacities

Soaring rates of car ownership in China’s biggest cities are causing huge problems, from days-long traffic jams to choking smog. Even car companies say the trend is not sustainable. 

General Motors says one solution could be to reinvent the vehicle. Introducing the Miao, the Jiao, and the Shiao –  three cute, tiny cars with a serious mission.  

Car ownership in China has a dark side. Last year, a nine-day and a three-day construction-related traffic jam on the highway leading to Beijing were the most dramatic examples.

In addition, car exhaust is adding to the horrendous smog caused by factory emissions in Shanghai and Beijing.

Then there’s the everyday frustration of traffic snarls inside the cities. And lack of parking spaces. Paul Kang’s family lives near Beijing. He says only ten years ago, cars in his neighborhood were pretty rare. It’s a different story now. 

"If my father comes home a little late, maybe 10:00 in the evening," notes Kang, "we can’t even find a place to park our car."

The problem is only going to get worse. People are moving by the millions into China’s cities. By 2030, 65 percent of Chinese residents will live in the cities, compared to 45 percent today.

Congestion and parking problems are likely to worsen in New York and L.A., too, along with megacities around the world.  

One solution may be electric vehicles that communicate with each other. Another could be the EN-V. It is an electric vehicle but it seats only two people, and it only has two wheels. Mary Pan is GM China’s vehicle manager for the EN-V. GM has made three of these pod-like cars, each with a different character.

"One is called shiao, which means smile," says Pan. "When you look at it, it’s very cute and it’s very happy."

Then there’s the Jiao, based on the red, black and white Chinese opera facemask, and the Miao, an all-black high-tech version. 

You get in, close the roof, and the EN-V rears up, to balance on its two wheels, and off it goes. The vehicle can turn in 180 degrees, which means parking in small spaces would be a cinch, compared to the parallel parking gymnastics U.S. drivers often have to go through.

The EN-V is so small you could park five times as many of them in a parking lot as you could park regular size vehicles.  They can drive themselves, and passengers inside can work at their laptops or read.  Two or more cars could be linked for larger groups to travel together. Crash avoidance technology would keep people safe.

"You know if you’re busy, your kid has to go to school, you can just put your kid in the car and it will take him to school and bring him back," says Pan. "That is the vision for 20 years from now."

GM isn’t talking cost, yet –but an EN-V would be a lot more affordable than a bigger electric car. GM says the EN-V would be only part of the solution to transportation problems in big cities. The company plans to begin testing the EN-V in a pilot project just outside Beijing in the next couple of years. 

Meanwhile, China’s mega cities have to do something in the short term about traffic congestion and smog.  Unfortunately for companies that sell cars, and potential customers, that solution is to put limits on car ownership. Beijing now has a lottery for license plates. Shanghai auctions them off. At a recent auction, license plates were selling for more than $8,000.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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