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MIT reinvents the wheel with foldable, stackable car

By Sharon Gaudin, Computerworld
November 09, 2007 10:10 AM ET

Computerworld - Ever wish you could drive around the city but not worry about parking?

If so, several MIT researchers may have just the thing for you. A team at the Cambridge, Mass.-based university is working on a design project for the City Car, a foldable, stackable two-seater vehicle. No, that's not a typo. The frame of the car is designed to fold in half so the cars can be stacked up eight deep in one city parking space.

Franco Vairani, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT and one of the original designers in the City Car project, said his team is taking a vending-machine approach to city travel. In his vision of the future, people would find a stack of electrical-powered City Cars on nearly every block in the city. When a user would want to drive somewhere in town, he would swipe a smart card or cell phone across an electronic reader and take a car out of the stack. When he gets to a business meeting across town, a shopping mall or their doctor's office, the driver simply leaves the car in a stack at his destination. The drivers don't own the cars. They simply rent them. It's fully self-service. The next person takes a car out of the stack, and off he goes.

The City Car, a foldable, stackable two-seater vehicle.The City Car, a foldable, stackable two-seater vehicle. 

Time magazine recently named the project one of the Best Inventions of the Year.

According to Vairani, the team is trying to rethink the relationship between cities and automobiles.

"At one point, I was having a conversation with Will [Lark], and we wanted to find a solution to parking," said Vairani. "There's a huge number of cars in parking garages, on the side of the roads. They don't do anything for eight hours a day, and then they go a few miles, and then they don't do anything again. What if people didn't own them? What if they used them and then folded them up and stacked them away?"

The City Car team is in the process of having a prototype of the vehicle built. Vairani said General Motors sponsors the Media Lab where his team works, but it doesn't have an agreement with any manufacturer to buy the plans.

The two-seater is designed to weigh 1,000 to 1,500 pounds, according to Vairani. Right now, it's expected to cruise at average city speed limits and may even be capable of topping 100 miles per hour.

One of the more interesting aspects of the design, said Vairani, is that electric motors will be built into each wheel, along with mechanisms for steering, braking and the suspension. "It's a robotic unit that is completely independent, and it's a wheel," explained Vairani. "Inside the wheel, we pack pretty much everything needed to move a car. The car has four of these wheels, and that's what drives the vehicle forward. The car doesn't have an engine. There are no gears. No transmission. This is a very efficient way of using energy."

Electric-powered City Cars could be stacked on nearly every block in the city.Electric-powered City Cars could be stacked on nearly every block in the city. (Photo courtesy of Franco Vairani/MIT Smart Cities)

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