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MIT City Car conceptual drawing  (Source:
MIT dreams up a rentable, stackable, all-electric car for cities

America just seems to be obsessed with large vehicles. Maybe it’s our expanding waistlines, image consciousness or our "You can't tell me what to do, so I'm gonna buy whatever I want" mentality that persuades people to transport junior in a Suburban, go grocery shopping with a Tundra CrewMax or take Fido to the get his yearly shot in an Escalade EXT.

With rising gas prices, an increasing attention to our consumption of fossil fuels, an increasing awareness of vehicle emissions and expanding city centers, many are looking for more cost effective and efficient ways of transporting people in metropolitan areas. MIT Media Lab's Smart Cities group is thinking small with a new stackable car to reduce emissions and congestion in and around city centers.

The MIT "City Car" would be an all-electric vehicle capable of carrying two passengers and their cargo. The vehicles would be located near train stations, bus terminals and airports to ferry travelers to their final destination.

"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," said Ph.D. candidate Franco Vairani of MIT's school of architecture. "Sometimes you have to walk up to a mile from the last train or subway stop."

The City Car will be stackable -- the entire back end of the vehicle would rise up allowing as many as eight of the vehicles to fit into a conventional parking space. The vehicle itself would also be mechanically simple with the electric motor, steering system and suspension enclosed within the wheel hubs.

The vehicle is said to weigh between 1,000 to 1,200 pounds and will be powered by lithium-ion batteries. According to Vairani, there could also be multiple versions of the City Car to accommodate a certain city's needs. A City Car destined for use in New York City might have a less powerful battery and a lower top speed due to traffic congestion. In other cities where interstate travel is more frequent, more powerful batteries capable of propelling the City Car faster and farther could be used.

If all goes well, MIT will show a prototype of the City Car sometime next year.

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It's a solution looking for a problem...
By jskirwin on 11/7/2007 3:15:21 PM , Rating: 2
As AmbroseAthan notes, Taxis have the "big city" market covered, along with public transit.

The problem in the US is not people living in New York City or San Francisco driving from one point in their city to the other, it's the people who live outside of the city who need to get in and can't/won't use public transit. This solution won't help them.

It also won't help the people who live in smaller cities and towns where mass transit doesn't make sense. In these markets you are literally stuck without a car - and one that you can drive alot farther than a li-ion battery will take you.

It's cute - but it's just like the Segueway: Techno-cool but real-world useless.

America is a country that presents a unique set of challenges to anyone interested in improving our transportation system. Carpool? People in my neighborhood work all over a 100 mile radius. Mass transit? The density of my small town doesn't support it. Move closer to where you work? My wife commutes 50 miles north - while I travel 5 miles south. If we move to the geographic middle, we would still spend the same on gas.

There are a number of constraints to any solution. Few businesses give preference to candidates who live close by. Most households have two wage earners, so moving doesn't help much. The big cities work for some people - but not all.

Plus America is huge. You can fit the entire country of Japan into California. The only place that we have the pop density of Western Europe is in the Northeast - an array filled with mass transit systems and the only place where Amtrak is profitable.

But people are already responding to $3/gallon gas. Hybrids are popular whereas the Hummer and heavy SUVs are not. People will follow their pocketbook and buy more efficient cars.

But cutesy solutions like this? Nope.

RE: It's a solution looking for a problem...
By clovell on 11/8/2007 2:59:03 PM , Rating: 1
These cars are small, relatively cheap to produce, require little maintenance, and passengers are their own drivers - they make sense, financially.

So why not put them in a suburban area? Unlike a train, this requires no new infrastructure besides some electrical outlets here and there. Unlike a bus, you don't have to have 20 people on each ride to break even. Deploying such a system involves less revolving sunk costs - and less financial risk than current mass-transit systems. It also involves more manageable logistics.

Lithium-ion batteries can take you pretty far, particularly in a car this small / light - and considering that you'd only be worried about one-way range (if your rental only has 20 miles of juice and you need to take a trip 14 miles away, just pickup a new one for the trip home).

Sure, this technology is not a fix all - but nothing really is. It does, however, have its place in a broad number of applications and dismissing it with little real argument is premature.

By jskirwin on 11/8/2007 4:54:44 PM , Rating: 2
So why not put them in a suburban area?

Because the number of possible destinations is greater than the city, but there will be fewer people in a given area using it. So in short, it's a density issue. It's the same reason why taxis don't operate in the suburbs the same way they do in a big city: you have to call one to pick you up - and the rates are higher - as opposed to hailing a passing one on the street.

I'm all for innovation, but I'm also a bit jaded when it comes to "breakthroughs" that never pan out.

But I could be wrong...

"Well, we didn't have anyone in line that got shot waiting for our system." -- Nintendo of America Vice President Perrin Kaplan

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