It may look like a bicycle pulling a cart but it may well be a cheap solution to a whole raft of challenges in developing countries. The Afreecar is the brainchild of Dr. Christopher Borroni-Bird, who has been solving mobility problems and thinking about the future of autos since he was GM’s director of Advanced Technology Vehicle Concepts. It was at GM where he created the skateboard car building concept, now made famous by Tesla and currently in the works by major automakers.
Back in 2010, he demonstrated connected autonomous and self-parking personal electric pods called EN-V (Electric Networked-Vehicle) at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. This inductee to the Automotive Hall of Fame is now working on a ‘Swiss Army knife’ of mobility – a solar e-trailer concept that provides jobs, transportation, food/medicine delivery and electricity for under-developed communities. Borroni-Bird shared his concept of the Afreecar, his story and mission with Auto Futures.
While volunteering in Mali with his two teenage daughters in 2010, Borroni-Bird learned about transportation problems first hand when he had to walk ten miles to get to the next town to fix some water pumps. He thought that “there must be a better way to move between villages than walking.”
He had seen that a local entrepreneur used solar panels to charge lead-acid batteries then rented the batteries out to villagers to provide electricity for lights at night.
“It got me thinking about a solar-powered electric vehicle that could be rented out,” says Borroni-Bird. It led him to the idea of combining a bicycle with a trailer and portable solar-powered charger.
“In poor countries there is plenty of sunshine that can be turned into energy,” says Borroni-Bird. He adds that a two-metre square solar panel can generate enough power to push a light vehicle and carry goods 40-50 miles (64-80 km) per day. The electricity can also be used to pump clean water, grind corn/grain or charge smartphones.
After he left GM and retired as Vice President of Strategic Development at Qualcomm, he tested the Afreecar concept vehicles with the help of the University of Michigan. The cart/trailer contains an electric motor and recycled batteries with solar panels on top. The cart is pulled on flat land and easy terrain by a human-powered bicycle. The sun charges recycled EV batteries and when power is needed the motor propels the bike-ala-cart uphill. The cart portion can carry food, medicine or even children to school.
“In Africa, children may walk three hours a day to go to school, Afreecar could give them back hours of their day,” says Borroni-Bird. He says in areas where there has been a natural disaster such as a hurricane, the Afreecars could deliver food, medicine and supplies without the need for fuel.
Afreecar is currently looking for business partners from the automotive, solar, battery, recycling and telecommunications industries. Borroni-Bird envisions that it will sell a kit of the batteries, electronics and solar panels for less than a $1,000. Local workers will construct the vehicle from recycled car and motorcycle parts to bring the total cost to around $2,000 with an estimated cost of about $2.00 a day.
Afreecars will be owned by businesses or communities such as hospitals, grocers, humanitarian aid organizations or towns. They will be shared by the community. Afreecar creates local jobs to assemble the vehicles as well as creating sustainable energy. Borroni-Bird says that one person will manage the vehicle to make sure that is used properly and maintained.
The design integrates smartphones as part of a service that can be used for payments, data revenue or security. Since the vehicle can’t be operated without the smartphone, the device also acts as a security measure and prevents thefts.
A study by the University of Michigan that researched competing transportation options in Ghana shows a strong market for the Afreecar concept against other transportation options. The report notes that Afreecar data services could be used to help restaurant or delivery service operators to track deliveries. Data could be a profit center by providing information about mapping traffic, routing, directions and rough roads.
“It doesn’t have to be that a few automakers make vehicles for the entire world,” says Borroni-Bird. He firmly believes in creating sustainable vehicles, locally that can also generate energy and jobs.