One of the consequences of the pandemic hitting us is that public transit, which has always been seen as THE solution to traffic congestion and pollution problems, is now considered by many a high-risk endeavour due to the risk of spreading or catching the virus.
Because of the difficulty of maintaining social distances on many forms of public transportation, many users are thinking of turning to a car for the next few months or even years, at least until the pandemic is brought under control.
Faced with this, some auto manufacturers are seeing opportunities, after suffering mightily in their own right because of Covid-19.
One of these is Kia, which is thinking of entering the same segment as Citroën's little Ami, an electric-powered microcar currently offered at a very affordable price.
Speaking with British magazine Auto Express, the chief operating officer of Kia in Europe explained the reasoning:
"People want to feel safe today. We saw that clearly from a survey that was done after coronavirus in China, which showed people had moved from public transportation to private transportation."
- Emilio Herrera, COO of Kia's European division
He added that 34% of those surveyed were using private transportation before the virus began to spread; this figure rose to 65% once containment measures and stay-at-home orders began to recede. Kia expects similar developments in Europe and North America. Herrera said his team is "studying a proposal on having very small micro vehicles for urban use”. In his view there’s real potential in this segment, and he confirms having looked to the Citroën Ami for insight and inspiration.
Electrification is key in this sector of the industry. Firstly, it’s tricky to develop a model the size of a golf cart that can hold a conventional engine. As well, these vehicles are specifically designed for urban users, and large cities in Europe and Asia are increasingly legislating non-electrified vehicles off their streets.
Kia's pocket car would mainly be used for short trips and never venture very far from a charging station. As a result, it could be practical even with a modest range. The 1070-lb Ami is equipped with a 5.5 kWh lithium-ion battery, which gives it a range of about 70 km.
It's easy to compete with public transportation in terms of comfort and convenience, but it's much harder when taking into account cost to the user. Taking the bus is cheap, in other words, so Kia's electric car would have to be almost as economical.
The as-yet-unnamed model would most likely be built on a platform developed by Kia and its Hyundai parent company, which could use it to build its own version. Emilio Herrera didn't venture a specific timeline, but according to Auto Express, we could see prototypes arrive in 2021. The model would be available the following year, either for purchase, lease, or through a car-sharing program.
Especially in the latter case, a way to disinfect the vehicles will have to be thought of, but that's another issue. Maybe the ultraviolet technology envisaged by Hyundai will be ready by then.
There was no mention of the North American market by Herrera, but the Kia representative did say that to be profitable, the project could not be focused only on Europe.
For those wondering about the images included here, they are of the Pop, an urban concept that Kia introduced in... 2010. This model, had it seen the light of day, would have been positioned under the Picanto in the brand’s lineup. Like the microcar under consideration, the Pop was an all-electric affair.