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MIT offers City Car for the masses

A project to improve urban transportation will make its debut this week in Milan. Images: MIT's stackable electric car

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

Is the City Car the solution to "the last mile" problem?

The City Car, a design project under way at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is envisioned as a two-seater electric vehicle powered by lithium-ion batteries. It would weigh between 1,000 and 1,200 pounds and could collapse, then stack like a shopping cart with six to eight fitting into a typical parking space. It isn't just a car, but is designed as a system of shared cars with kiosks at locations around a city or small community.

"The problem with mass transit is it kind of takes you to where you want to go and at the approximate time you want to get there, but not exactly. Sometimes you have to walk up to a mile from the last train or subway stop," said Franco Vairani, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT's school of architecture. The City Car is his thesis, though it's now a group effort involving many others at the school.

While the City Car is still under development--a prototype is expected next year--a scooter designed by other MIT researchers, led by Michael Chia-Liang Lin, will be unveiled at the EICMA Motorcycle Show in Milan, Italy, later this week.

The City Car grew out of a 2003 project with sponsorship from General Motors that set out to rethink vehicles in general from a the-sky's-the-limit perspective. Vairani and Will Lark, a mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate, presented the idea of a small collapsible car that could stack like a shopping cart to answer the problems of urban crowding for both driving and parking. They were encouraged to share and explore the urban car idea by Bill Mitchell, the director of both MIT's Design Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Smart Cities research group.

The City Car is now an interdisciplinary project with the Smart Cities Group and the MIT Media Lab involving architects, industrial designers, and mechanical engineers from different groups all working in tandem on different components. Even a medical doctor has been involved, according to Lark.

Other inner-city transportation ideas are on the drawing boards, of course. And various ideas have been at recent auto shows.

Unlike a regular car--or even another type of electric car--that has a central power system distributed to its wheels, the City Car is envisioned as a modular system. Each wheel base has its own motor, steering, braking, and suspension system. It then taps into a central system for power, computer control, and some mechanical linkage. These "electric robot wheels" as they are called, would allow the City Car to be collapsible, stackable, and spin on a dime for sideways movement and easier parking, according to Lark. "So you really treat this like a Lego brick you snap onto a cabin," said Lark.

People should think about the car as more of a service than an individual vehicle. It could be connected to a network giving the driver access to real-time information, such as route advice in the face of bad traffic conditions. Or, it could alert drivers when they're passing the kind of restaurant they like, said Lark.

The existing Zip Car rental system has shown that people are willing to be part of a service that rewards members who are good custodians, according to Lark. He said the City Car could create the same type of community feeling of responsibility.

The City Car business model is akin to a shopping cart or a bike-share program where you return the item to a convenient location when you're done with it. City Car users would be required to swipe their credit card as a form of deposit. The cars could also be tracked using GPS. To protect privacy, the GPS info could then be deleted once the car is safely returned to a kiosk.

The cars could be designed to match transportation realities in various cities. For instance, cars might be slower, have a shorter range and a lighter battery in congested cities like Boston. Another version might be faster or have longer ranges for sprawling cities like Los Angeles where people would need a top speed of maybe 70 mph so they could safely enter highways, according to Vairani.

The modular system makes it possible for the vehicle to be easily customizable and kept only as light and efficient as it needs to be for each individual situation.

The group says it has already received interest from the state of Hawaii, which is rethinking its mass transit system. Since even locals have to take a plane or boat to get from one island to another in Hawaii, it's not just tourists who need something once they reach their destination.

Correction: Due to an editing error, this story incorrectly cited the designers of the scooter being unveiled at the EICMA Motorcycle Show. The scooter was designed by a group of MIT researchers led by Michael Chia-Liang Lin.