Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


CHRIS BORRONI-BIRD has proposed an innovative means of personal mobility and mobile power particularly optimized for sub-Sahara Africa. The Afreecar, a play on “Africa Car,” is an advanced bike-trailer system. It combines bicycle mobility with solar-panel-powered electrical assist, the panel giving shade to the cargo as well.

The Afreecar is envisioned as providing simple, low-cost, and robust transport. This and the following images from SAE Automotive Engineering, January 2018.

”Who Wants Afreecar?” is written by Lindsay Brooke, editor-in-chief, SAE Automotive Engineering magazine, in its January 2018 issue.

Lindsay, an SAE pal, observes that “One billion people globally survive on less than $2/day, but desperately need personal mobility and electric power.” He cites as well that much of current personal mobility in sub-Sahara Africa is either inefficient, costly, or both: Walking is limited to distances of less than 10 miles with payloads of perhaps 25 lbs. Oxen and other beasts of burden have greater capability, but can cost $200—and require feeding. Small motorcycle/trailer combinations extend capabilities, but can cost $2000 and require periodic refueling.

Chris Borroni-Bird, American engineer, automotive executive, and research scientist.

Chris Borroni-Bird is co-author with Larry Burns and the late William J. Mitchell of Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century (MIT Press), 2010, a fascinating book that has appeared here at SimanaitisSays. In the 1990s, Chris led Chrysler’s gasoline fuel-cell project, later headed up advanced concepts at GM, then moved to vice-president of strategic development at Qualcomm, and, most recently, became a research scientist at MIT Media Lab. He’s also the founder of Afreecar LLC.

Chris has already demonstrated a proof-of-concept of the bike/electric-trailer idea. The rider’s pedal power and the solar panel’s 3 kW-h of energy stored in an onboard battery pack give the Afreecar a duty cycle sufficient for inter-village transport. Borroni-Bird says entrepreneurs with bike/e-trailers could travel to a distribution center, pick up three 110-lb. bags of fertilizer, say, and haul them back to village farmers. He notes, “More food could thus be grown and it could be transported back to market much, much easier.”

Transport hubs could evolve, the commerce supported by cell phones (which are ubiquitous in sub-Sahara Africa). “The cell phone is an important tool in the solar e-trailer concept,” Borroni-Bird says. “Besides providing direct operator communications, the phone’s GPS map would provide route information, battery monitoring, and even inform the rider of the optimum angle to set the solar=panel roof in relation to the sun at any given time of day. It could offer predictive maintenance and data analytics.” And, of course, cell phones can be recharged by e-trailers. In general, the e-trailer becomes a mobile electric power unit.

A proof-of-concept Afreecar was built by prototyping specialists Pratt & Miller.

Borroni-Bird has a proof-of-concept vehicle, but recognizes that to be marketable the Afreecar would need to be lighter, less costly, and more robust. Even here, though, his creativity is evident: Perhaps a standardized electrical kit could be used with repurposed components that are locally sourced. That is, bike/e-trailer production itself could be a boot-strap activity. “Transport, no matter how humble,” Borroni-Bird observes, “enables economic development.”

I realize these are times when a “like, really smart” person has expressed disparaging opinions of Africa. It is encouraging that really smart people such as Chris Borroni-Bird think otherwise. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018


  1. Gordon Craig
    January 16, 2018

    Hear, here….good idea indeed…you mention cellphones have become ubiquitous in sub-Sahara Africa, and yes on the face of that I’m sure it is true but then where and how is all the support structure for coverage, the repeater stations, cell phone towers, etc? With millions using the phones, the scale of the network must be enormous, best wishes, gordon

    • phil ford
      January 16, 2018

      As I understand it, the infrastructure for cell-phone IS extensive, but not nearly as complex or costly as hard-wired communications. Where there’s a will … 😎

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: