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Reinventing the wheel

By Dean Irvine for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- The concept cars shown at the Paris motor show this week might be a glimpse of the shape of things to come, but across the Atlantic a car is being developed that is radically reimagining the automobile and could also transform our perception of how we use it in the city.

William Mitchell, a professor of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his team of engineers and architects have a vision of stackable, two-seater cars forming a city-wide car share scheme.

It began as a conversation between Mitchell and architect Frank Gehry who acted as guest critic to the car's development by the Smart Cities research group at MIT.

Now, six years after those initial discussions, and with sponsorship by General Motors, Mitchell and his team are soon to start work on a full-scale prototype of the City Car.

"The automobile is a mess, it's a pathological design, basically. So we thought why not step back, think about what kind of city you want and design an automobile that reinforces that idea," Mitchell who is head of the design team told CNN.

The common problems of city life, congestion, pollution and parking, became the focus of the project. Starting from a clean slate, the concept of a small battery-powered car that could be stacked at various pick-up points around a city took shape.

The final design of the car isn't as iconoclastic as Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, but Mitchell's team have made a clean break from all other aspects of car design, focussing on the relationship between people within cities and cars.

"At first we didn't think the project would be about urban renewal," Ryan Chin a research fellow at MIT who has worked on the project since 2000, told CNN.

"Part of the design aim was to create an unobtrusive car that would fit in with any urban landscape and a culturally neutral car that could be adopted by any city. But we're not trying to create something that will replace the car, but something that will be a part of an integrated transportation system. We hope we're creating a new archetype," said Chin.

Mitchell envisages stacks of cars at various points around the city, such as outside subway or bus stations, solving what he calls the "last mile" problem of getting home from a central hub.

Anyone could pick up a car by swiping their credit card and picking up the first car from the stack, much like a luggage trolley from an airport.

"It's not the individually owned car, nor is it the traditional idea of public transportation, it's like having valet parking everywhere," said Mitchell.

The radical diversion comes from the technology the City Car hopes to employ, rethinking everything from the wheels upwards. Instead of a central engine each wheel is powered by "wheel robots", independent motors and suspension systems that would allow the car to maneuver in tight streets and even park sideways by turning 90 degrees. MIT have patent-pending on the technology.

By eliminating a central engine the rest of the car can be configured with the passengers in mind.

"When you swipe your credit card, the car will know who you are and automatically change to suit your preferences. It will adjust the seat, the driving characteristics and even the colour via a thin, programable display that covers the exterior," said Mitchell.

The energy concerns of the future have also been taken into account with grand schemes of super-fast charging batteries supplied ultimately by solar or wind power connected to the stacking stations that could even feed back into the energy grid of the city itself.

The flexibility of being able to leave the car wherever you like is another key to the project.

"We've looked at the idea of 'garbage collection', how to get the cars back to the nearest stack where they can recharge their batteries ready for the next customer," said Chin.

He suggests an idea of "virtual towing" where an idle car could pick up on another vehicle and follow it back to a stack, using inter-car tracking software. Cars that could communicate with each other would also minimize the chances of accidents as they could maintain safe distances between each other.

The complexities of large cities present a myriad of challenges as much as developing the car and technology itself, but there have already been early discussions with Singapore and Hong Kong to test drive the cars and system on a small scale.

By concentrating on the social aspects of the car as much as the technological, Mitchell and his team imply a complete restructuring of the automobile industry, one from a purely product-driven industry to a service industry.

It's the kind of bold thinking most recently synonymous with the internet boom of the mid to late 1990s and the excitement connected to ideas of a new network society, so it's no surprise that reaction from car manufacturers has been cautious.

"The big bargaining chip for us to get backing from manufacturers is the pollution-free aspect and the solution it offers to urban congestion. However, most of them are still simply wondering 'How do I sell this?'," said Chin.

General Motors have supported the project from its inception and see the City Car as an integral part of the future development of the automobile, although remain cagey on the practical details of making the project viable.

"It's essential that projects like the MIT City Car are supported, so we can see what ideas might work and what might not," Roy Matthieu, staff researcher at GM and part of their university relations team, told CNN.

"We're trying to get some results, but because the project hasn't be focussed on the hard technology, we have no fixed remit for what should be delivered. If hydrogen powered cars are next in the evolution of the automobile, the City Car could be the step after that."

A reconfiguring of our cities and our relationship with the car might not happen in the short-term, but Mitchell and his team believe the project has plenty of miles left in it and can be developed incrementally.

"We're excited about getting the car built and the technology out there. That's the long-term goal. Whether it gets picked up by manufacturers and we see a shift in public perception of the car, we'll have to wait and see," said Chin.


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MIT's stackable concept car aims to change our relationship with the car in the city.

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