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Hiriko Electric Fold-Up: Car of the Future for Crowded Cities?

GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images(CAMBRIDGE, Mass.) -- The modern automobile sets us free and ties us down all at once.  It takes us wherever we want to go -- but it gets caught in traffic, is a pain to park if you live in a major city and pollutes the air.  Which is why a team at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) tried inventing a car for city use.

They call it Hiriko, meaning "urban car," and built a prototype with seven small firms from the Basque region of northern Spain.  They've now shown it off with help from European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.  The first two-seater production models should be on the streets in Spain next year.

"This is an electric vehicle that gets the equivalent of 200 mpg," said Kent Larson of MIT, who heads the Changing Places project at the institute.  "Combined with shared-use, it greatly reduces congestion, pollution, and energy consumption."

In cities where parking is at a premium, the Hiriko has an advantage over conventional cars: It folds up.  When folded, it is shorter than most cars are wide.  Three Hirikos can use a parking space ordinarily needed for one standard sedan.

How can a car fold up?  The Hiriko, with an electric motor attached to each wheel, does not need a drive train as a traditional car does.  And the wheels are mounted at the corners of the chassis, so the car can turn in place if necessary, or even move sideways.

There are also no side doors.  The entire front of the Hiriko opens for easy access, and the controls swing out of the way.

A car as small as the Hiriko may seem inherently unsafe, but its designers say they thought about that.

"This is designed for central cities, where the average speed is often below 20 mph," Larson said.  "It is not designed for highway use."

Larson said that while the Hiriko may be bought by people who want one, it may be better for the cars to be shared.  The sticker price would be about 12,500 euros, or $16,000.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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