Add wafer-thin, programmable displays that cover the interior and exterior of the car like a layer of paint, and you have a vehicle that can be customized at will.
"You can imagine signalling being not just a static signal light but something more dynamic," said Chin, who suggests the words "reversing" or "turning left" could roll across the car's body to declare the driver's intentions. "From a heating and cooling point of view, you might want your car to be darker or lighter depending on weather. On the interior, you can customize your dashboard for each person. If I'm an elderly person, I probably want a very large speedometer so I can see it; if I'm a race-car driver, maybe all I want is a tachometer."
The close proximity of cars in cities increases the risk of accidents, and the MIT car has a host of radical ideas to deal with this problem. Chief safety features include responsive seats that do away with the need for seat belts and air bags: these are based around a spine at the back of the seat with a number of "fingers" to embrace a passenger and hold them in place if the car detects that it is involved in an accident. And the cabin would absorb the impacts of crashes using new materials.
"There is a new development in fluids that can be magnetized so that they move from liquid to solid state within a nanosecond. You can imagine using these fluids as a way of absorbing energy in an impact," Chin said.
Over the next few months the MIT team will complete the final design and present their results to General Motors, which will build the first prototype. Beyond that, Chin is already trying to arrange a public test in the Far East.
"We might do this in Hong Kong or in Singapore," he said. "The interest in those places is that they are very dense, have mass transit and limited range. An island like Hong Kong would be a perfect place to test this because you have all those conditions."
Whether the city car concept appears on garage forecourts as designed by the Smart Cities group or whether the technologies are taken forward individually remains to be seen. Chin says the group would be happy with either outcome.