Corralling a crowd of adults into a single vehicle is not glamourous, comfortable, or easy. But one Copenhagen-based company has brewed up a petrol-free car option that looks more like a superhero’s weekend chariot than a crowded sedan that’ll cramp your style. The company, Spiri, hopes to combine on-demand ride-sharing with eco-friendly carpooling for a hipper, Uber-like alternative that could spell doom for unflattering minivans.
Spiri has higher-ups who include former engineers and execs from the likes of Aston Martin and Tesla. The company’s namesake car is all-electric vehicle that’s a modest 1,700lbs, has a carbon fibre body, an impressive 200-mile range, and the ability to recharge its 36.5kWh battery in as little as 40 minutes.
The company envisions customers renting out a Spiri using an app, and then picking up strangers along the way who are headed in the same direction, and who are automatically matched with the driver. After the journey, the service tells you the nearest drop-off spot to return the vehicle. The effort launches next year, with sign-ups open on the company website for folks who want to be a part of the initial pilot programme. It’s free if you take the initiative to be the driver; it costs a small fee if you prefer to bum a ride, and your credit card is charged automatically.
Conversely, if you’d rather do the hitchhiking and not the chauffeuring, plug in your destination and create what the company calls a “virtual bus stop,” and drivers pick you up as they’re alerted to your location on their app. The app pre-designates all pick-up and drop-off locations.
“We are bridging the gap between what urban transport looks like now and what it will be like when self-driving cars come on the market,” says Aika Poulain, PR and communications manager at Spiri.
The car is a checklist of contemporary car buzzwords: Ride-share, electric, low-cost. It’s one thing to reinvent the business model — think UberPool in which a driver uses his or her own personal ride to wrangle individual strangers who share a common destination all at once — but it’s another thing to reinvent the vehicle itself.
Spiri is thinking about carpooling at its most elemental level. What does a vehicle actually need to look like to most comfortably and effectively haul multiple people at once? Spiri starts with the obvious: Space. Backseat passengers should get just as much leg room as those in the front, and Spiri attempts to maximise wriggle room. The Spiri ride is also cheap to make, and cheap to use — they company says that for a passenger, a ride will cost the same amount as bus fare.
But why build a whole new car from scratch, instead of buying something off the shelf? It’s because Spiri claims it’s not just about building a different kind of car, but a whole new kind of transportation.
“Current cars are heavy, bulky, and expensive, and our style on-demand carpooling service would wear and tear these cars from the multiple-a-day trips on daily basis,” says Poulain. Poulain says that the Spiri vehicle isn’t exactly complex — it’s made of just 700 parts, instead of the thousands found in normal cars.
The Spiri car took 11 months to design and build the first prototype, which Poulain describes as a “lab on wheels” and reminds us that the final look could be quite different. Why the bizarre tyre layout, with the front two so close together? Poulain says that the team looked at three-wheeler concepts and found that such designs result in fewer required parts and needed bodywork in the front end. But squeezing in a fourth tyre in the front gives the car the same stability as a four-wheeler.
The company released a prototype — but a final version will actually cruise the streets of the yet-to-be-picked test city and see just how effectively it can ferry riders en masse.
Does Spiri look at a service like UberPool as a competitor?
“We like to think that car ownership is our biggest competitor,” says Poulain, pointing out that there is no individual driver making money off his or her fares, and that the goal is to create something that’s powered on community. “Our ultimate dream is to provide such an outstanding urban transport service and product that the concept of owning a vehicle becomes unattractive to people.”
As long as consumers keep eschewing cars in favour of ride shares, the need for the ideal group car will continue to rise. Whether or not the solution is bubble-shaped people-movers, however? That remains to be seen.
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