The Smart Cities team at MIT was formed in 2003 and is led by Professor Bill Mitchell. Mitchell has been working with some of the brightest minds in academia to conceptualise a sustainable urban transport system of tomorrow.

With the number of cars in the world predicted to double to 1.7 billion by 2030, the development of ecologically friendly vehicles has never been so important and much of the world is moving to a position where they support alternative transport systems.

The Smart Cities team have developed a Mobility-on-Demand system or MoD. It proposes a convenient and efficient urban mobility system – while greatly reducing energy demand and carbon emissions – through the use of lightweight, intelligent electric vehicles organised into new kinds of urban-scale systems. Singapore is proposed as an ideal site for such a system.

The MoD system is designed for the short trips people take in cities at the beginning and end of train or bus journeys, termed the ‘first mile and the last mile problem’. The system is synergistic with existing public transport systems.

There are three vehicle types in the Smart Cities MoD system: a GreenWheel electric bicycle, a RoboScooter electric scooter and the CityCar electric automobile. The scooter and car collapse and fold – all have been prototyped – and all three modes of transport have been designed for different demands.

At a system level the Smart Cities team have explored charging infrastructure, the synergies between electric vehicle fleets and smart electric grids, and digitally managed Mobility-on-Demand systems.

The Smart Cities concept solves the issues of parking, traffic congestion and pollution in cities (both now and into the future) with the creation of a smart grid, fleet management system and urban implementation plans.

It involves the redesign of vehicles for a city, not the redesign of a city. The bicycle, scooter and car use in-wheel electric motor technology. The motor can be retrofitted to any existing bicycle, it drives the front wheel of the scooter and all wheels of the car.

The CityCar wheels can turn at an angle that allows it to move sideways, or it can be parked nose first towards the pavement. It folds up when parked, and can be stacked like a shopping trolley into other CityCars to save valuable space.

The car has a luggage compartment in the rear and batteries in the base. It weighs 455 kilograms, is 2.5 metres long when open and 1.5 metres long when folded shut. It has a cast aluminium exoskeleton, the body is a polycarbonate shell and the car is controlled digitally. So, compared to existing cars, very few components are needed to construct the car.

The digital controls have imbedded intelligence with GPS and supply information about traffic congestion and parking availability to the driver. Digital information assists drivers to calculate the shortest distances to destinations and to avoid areas of traffic congestion.

The CityCar is charged when parked, and the Scooter charges when stored also, both by the smart grid via contactless inductive charging. All vehicles are proposed for shared use in a democratic public or private system.

With a system of drop-off and pick-up points strategically located – at train stations, for example – people can use a credit card swipe to activate vehicles.

The renaissance city of Florence was given as an example of a city currently congested with traffic and designed well before cars were invented. It is proposed that in a city like Florence, pick-up stations for CityCars could be located at the ancient city gate positions and drop-off parking and inductive charging areas could be in the piazzas.

It was also proposed that in a city like Taipei, where a fast train system is working well, that scooters could be located at 7-Eleven stores, bus stops or schools so people can easily travel the short distances required at the beginning and end of their journeys to catch the train or to travel to work after their train ride.

The Smart Cities group has also analysed fleet management and what they call Dynamic Pricing Mechanisms, which involve a user pays system.

Curve editor, Belinda Stening, spoke to Ryan Chin – a PhD candidate from the Smart Cities research team – about the future of transportation design at the Congress.

What about the future of automotive design – what direction will it take?

I know students studying transportation design at the moment are concerned about the shallowness of automotive design – at the Arts Centre Pasadena, for example. So in reaction to this, they are becoming more like product designers and less like stylists. The ideas that students now have versus the ideas that automotive companies have are very different, however.

To demonstrate one direction we have taken: in 2003, at MIT, we presented a broad project about the relationship a car has with a city – the project started by wiping the slate clean. We looked at everything from exploring material science and propulsion systems to where car design is actually going.

One idea was the creation of a soft car – like a cushioned, upholstered car. We also started working with the architect Frank Gehry on some ideas. We took these ideas to General Motors (our sponsor) and convinced them that we needed to do a project with Frank and investigate a car sharing concept. Gehry had written an article about this in the 1970s so it was something close to his heart.

How are the automotive giants coping with the transition in automotive design?

Any of the automotive companies could produce the CityCar. It is their corporate culture that is stopping this. They have a culture that is product based, not service based. But I believe that the automotive giants will fade away over time, and the CityCar and MoD concept will more than likely succeed with outsiders.

A large electronic appliance manufacturer could easily produce these vehicles, but the automotive industry understands the regulations and has the safety and crash testing capabilities.

This change in the automotive landscape is a big problem for the big OEMs. They sponsor our research at MIT Media Lab as a kind of insurance policy against disruptive ideas.

How do you think styling and vehicle appearance will be effected?

We have tried to reinvent automotive style with the CityCar. We’ve introduced collapsibility enabled by the new technology. Our earlier designs looked like conventional small cars with side mirrors, analogue dials and steering wheels, but when you are taking an extreme view your designs need to be extreme too. So in the CityCar, cameras replace side mirrors and we have used airless tyres.

Transportation concepts for our future mainly focus on urban scenarios. What about travel in non-urban spaces?

Regional or long-distance travel can easily utilise such technologies as fuel cells, clean diesel and series hybrids. Currently, there is an overwhelming trend to solve our urban transport problems as eighty per cent of the world’s population lives within twenty miles of urban areas.

How do you rate systems like Better Place technology?

The Better Place program recognises the need for electrification, but part
of the model talks about battery swapping stations. This works well with bikes and scooters but restricts the car format too much.

What about long distance travel – rail and air travel, for example – can you comment on how these industries are going to have to change to become greener and more environmentally friendly?

The high-speed rail systems in Spain and Taiwan are very efficient at the moment. We have worked on an energy efficient air jet, which was a conceptual project for a space shuttle style jet. MIT has also researched air travel that involves no check-ins so perhaps a Smart Travel Bag might meet you at your destination – instead of having to travel with heavy luggage.

Will changes in transportation change how we live, or change community life?

Yes. In Japan, for example, young people do not want to own a car any more. With the shift to urbanisation they are discarding car ownership. The ZipCar in the USA is used mainly by young people who choose to not own a car. The financial burden of parking fees, insurance, fuel and maintenance is prohibitive.

There is a lot of talk about small urban vehicles that suit a maximum of two passengers. What about the transport needs of families?

There has not been a lot of research into the needs of families in this area. However, we have devised a way to link CityCars together in a chain formation, which allows for the transport of more that two people.

In Western societies the birth rate is fairly steady, so small vehicles will suit small family needs. However, in Asia and Africa these rates are increasing. And another interesting point – in California the average time spent by children in cars is around two to three hours a day; this is twice the normal rate for the rest of the USA. 

to view a movie of the CityCar go to:

to view the RoboScooter go to:

to view of the GreenWheel bicycle
go to:

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