Sun, Jan 08, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Revolutionary cars are on the way

Architects and engineers are rethinking automobile technology so radically that the car of the future may not even have an engine

By Alok Jha  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

It is not every day that a concept car rewrites the rules of more than 100 years of motoring. In development for four years by a team of architects and engineers led by William Mitchell, former head of the school of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as part of his Smart Cities research group, a new MIT car is borne of a complete rethink of people's relationship with their cars in the ever-expanding cities of the future.

Mitchell expects we will share cars that will be easier to drive in congested cities, will be pollution-free and can be customized at will.

The city car concept, with styling input by architect Frank Gehry, will be completed and delivered by MIT to General Motors early next year.

"Primarily we're interested in urban living," said Ryan Chin, an architect and engineer at MIT's media lab and a member of Mitchell's research group."Everything scales down from what we think the city of the future is."

The Smart Cities group focused on how cars could be better adapted to get round familiar problems of city life, namely congestion, pollution and parking. Motor companies are well aware of the issue.

But the group felt the companies had missed the point, even with city cars such as the Smart, the iconic two-passenger cars introduced by Swatch and Mercedes in 1998.

"We have to think of city cars as not just small-footprint vehicles that can squeeze into tight spaces but ones that can work in unison and also be almost like a parasite that leeches on to mass-transit systems," Chin said.

While Smart changed the way people think about parking and size, the MIT engineers felt that, as it had not been widely adopted and congestion and pollution problems had got no better, its success had been limited.

So the MIT team started from scratch to come up with their own concept: a stackable, shareable, electric, two-passenger car.

"Imagine a shopping cart -- a vehicle that can stack -- you can take the first vehicle out of a stack and off you go," Chin said. "These stacks would be placed throughout the city. A good place would be outside a subway station or a bus line or an airport, places where there's a convergence of transportation lines and people."

The precedent for this type of shared personal transport is demonstrated with bicycle-sharing schemes in European towns and the ZipCar and FlexCar projects on the east and west coasts of the US respectively.

The MIT concept car is a complete rethink of vehicle technology. For a start, there is no engine, at least in the traditional sense. The power comes from devices called wheel robots.

"These are self-contained wheel units that have electric motors inside," Chin said. "The interesting thing is that the wheel can turn a full 360 degrees so you can have omni-directional wheel movements. You can rotate the car while you're moving, any direction can be front or back and you can do things like crabbing or translate sideways. It's almost like you imagine yourself driving a computer chair."

The wheel robots, complete with their own suspension, remove the need for a drive shaft and even the engine block, freeing up designers to make new use of the space in the car.

"Essentially the car will comprise four wheel-robots plus a customizable chassis," Chin said. "The frame can be built specifically for each customer."

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