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Cities are hot again. Young people and empty-nest boomers are piling into urban centers large and small. That means traffic, already bad, is getting worse. It's a conundrum with no cheap or easy solutions. New roads and subways come at sky-high prices and can take decades. Think of Boston's troubled $14.6 billion, 20-year Big Dig project or New York's quixotic 78-year quest to build a new Manhattan subway line.
A team of designers, engineers, and transportation geeks at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab have come up with another solution. Born of a collaboration of General Motors (GM) and architect Frank Gehry, the group's CityCar project mates a very advanced electric car with a broader vision of vehicle sharing.
The system works like airport luggage carts. "Stacks" of CityCars would be stationed at subway and train stops as well as shopping and cultural centers. When parked, the two-seaters charge up their batteries with enough juice for trips of 10 miles or more.
To check one out, a person would swipe a preauthorized smart card, undock the first car in the stack, hop in, and roll away. Parking the agile units is easier than a conventional car—all four wheels can steer, so the cars can even rotate in place. To combat theft, the 1,500-pound minis would have remotely accessible digital locks and GPS tracking units. They could be returned to any stack.
With CityCars, suburbanites could opt for the train, avoiding traffic and parking troubles. And locals might choose a CityCar over a taxi. One could be used by many different drivers each day, effectively replacing many private cars and reducing traffic and emissions. Even when recharged from coal-fired electricity, battery-powered cars are more energy-efficient and cleaner than gas-burning ones.
Rather than a mechanical drive train, with engine, gears, and an axle, the CityCar relies on what its designers call "wheel robots." Each includes a high-efficiency electric motor, suspension, steering, and brake apparatus. The wheel robots click into the body on a standard socket, making them easy to change and fix. By eliminating the drive train, the CityCar's chassis, which also holds the battery pack, can fold up. When nestled in a stack, six can fit in the area of a normal parking space.
The MIT team has already built prototypes, and the technologies needed to scale up production exist. Cities best suited for a CityCar system are those where traffic is bad, parking is costly, workers commute to a central business area, and public transportation is good. That means Chicago, New York, Portland, Ore., and San Francisco—as well as most major metropolises in Europe and Asia.
By Adam Aston