The City Transformer folding car (Photo/Courtesy City Transformer)
The City Transformer folding car (Photo/Courtesy City Transformer)

Could this ‘foldable’ Israeli car solve your S.F. parking woes?

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You unplug your electric vehicle at home and head off into the crowded city. There’s nowhere to park, but instead of fruitlessly circling the block, you merely press a button and your car pulls in its wheels to become a compact mini-vehicle that can fit in a tiny parking place. You get out, happy and unstressed, to start your day.

Or that’s the idea, anyway. It’s certainly the dream behind City Transformer, a new electric “foldable car” designed by an Israeli company with its sights on an international market.

“You can drive it as a car, but when you park it, you park it like a motorcycle,” explained CEO Asaf Formoza.

The City Transformer isn’t technically a car, said designer Eyal Cremer. It’s a quadricycle, which is subject to different regulations than those of a regular car. The City Transformer has two modes: one with its wheels extended, and one with its wheels tucked in. The car can be driven both ways, but when the wheels are extended, it drives more like a car in terms of stability and deliberately takes up more space to be more visible on the road. To park, it just pulls its wheels in.

“It looks simple, but it’s not simple at all,” Cremer said.

But anyone getting excited about driving one around San Francisco would be advised to be patient.

In the U.S., the City Transformer would be considered a “neighborhood electric vehicle,” or NEV, which comes with some serious regulations. In California, they can’t be used on streets with a speed limit over 35 miles per hour, even if the NEV is going below that.

There are already NEVs on the market, like the Scoot Quad, which you can already rent in San Francisco and is made by Nissan. The difference with the City Transformer is the transforming part — the base upon which it’s built, and which houses all of the really important technology, according to Cremer. That means any type of chassis can be dropped on top.

But whether its dual possibilities will be enough to set the City Transformer ahead of its competitors is hard to tell. The company has a prototype, which unfolds and folds as promised, but the City Transformer isn’t on the market yet, in spite of the fact that the website is taking pre-orders. But the management knows it can’t linger.

“In order to succeed we have to get to the market in two years,” Formoza said.

The base model is expected to cost $10,000 before the leased battery and taxes. The range is 80 to 112 miles, depending on whether the air conditioning is on. And the car itself is tiny: less than 8 feet long and 5 feet tall. With the wheels tucked in, it will be a little over 3 feet wide. It won’t be much of a carpool vehicle, as it will seat a maximum of three people.

If City Transformer makes it, there could be a large customer base. Not only is the electric car market booming, according to market research firm Transparency, the global golf cart and NEV market are projected to reach $2.8 billion by the end of 2020.

City Transformer CEO Asaf Formoza with a prototype of his folding car in Israel (Photo/Maya Mirsky)
City Transformer CEO Asaf Formoza with a prototype of his folding car in Israel (Photo/Maya Mirsky)

The company is also banking on the pain of parking. The idea behind the folding car actually came from Formoza’s roommate who, griping about the horrible parking in Tel Aviv, said he wished there was a car that folded up into a suitcase.

In fact, research backs up his roommate’s complaint. It’s bad enough that at Ben-Gurion University in southern Israel, Eran Ben-Elia is using game-based models to study how people park and at what point they might choose to park farther away vs. pay more for a spot. The idea is to reduce “cruising,” the stressful habit of circling blocks looking for a space.

Studies in San Francisco have also found cruising to be a serious problem. According to a 2017 report by INRIX, a transportation research company, San Francisco drivers spend 83 hours a year cruising around just to find a parking spot. The city recently adopted a new demand-based parking system with meters charging anywhere between 50 cents and $8. Residents might remember 2011’s SFpark initiative, a trial run at some city meters to test whether raising parking rates at popular spots and times encourages people to park farther away rather than circle for a prime spot.

San Francisco is the first to adopt this kind of program citywide, and Formoza and the City Transformer team think a folding car could alleviate parking problems worldwide.

Not that they think the City Transformer will replace all other cars. Instead, they picture it as a second car for parents or young people, or maybe as something you can rent. They have big dreams of fleets of City Transformers across the world, shuttling tourists around Paris or delivering the mail in Germany, although for now they’re just hoping to get them driving on the streets of Tel Aviv. And like most startups, they’re coasting on their own passion and dreams, happy they’ve come so far despite skepticism and an original idea of producing a car that can fit in a suitcase.

“People told us, ‘You’re crazy,’” Formoza said. “Crazy Israelis.”

J. staff writer Maya Mirsky was in Israel earlier this month to report on robotics innovations at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev as part of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev‘s 13th Annual Murray Fromson Journalism Fellowship.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.