Paradigm Shift: The MIT CityCar And The Future Of Urban Mobility

Courtesy of William Lark Jr. and MIT

by Max Frankel

Next month, Senator Jeff Merkely (D-Oregon) will drive an all electric vehicle from Portland to Ashland — a distance of about 285 miles — to show off the viability EVs and Oregon’s new electric highway program.

While Senator Merkley’s trek is great PR for EVs and his support in congress is vital to the continued development of the next generation of vehicles, the future of the electric car isn’t just on the nation’s highways, but in the cities.

For the last few years, scientists and researchers at MIT have been working on a project called the CityCar. The CityCar represents a radical rethinking of the urban mobility paradigm — a shift from conventional vehicles operating in a cramped, polluted, dangerous environment to vehicles specifically optimized for urban centers.

What is the City Car?

As MIT describes, the CityCar is unlike any vehicle in production today. “It does not have a central engine and traditional power train, but is powered by four in-wheel electric motors. Each wheel unit contains drive motor (which also enables regenerative braking), steering, and suspension, and is independently digitally controlled.”

The decision to eschew a traditional motor and drive train allows the CityCar to do quite a few things that other cars can’t, like O-turns for instance. Since the wheels move independently, the car can also move sideways into parallel parking spaces. It also allows the body of the vehicle to be lightweight, safe, and spacious since it requires no large, clunky battery back.

Courtesy of Franco Vairani and Technology Review

Without a rigid drive shaft, MIT’s engineers had the freedom to allow the CityCar to fold in half — a revolutionary concept. When a CityCar arrives at its destination, it folds up, compacting itself into an area 1/2 its normal size, and stacks with other CityCars much the same way that grocery carts do. The driver then simply walks straight ahead and out of the vehicle. using this technique, between three and eight CityCars can fit into one conventional parking space.

The CityCar can then charge while in its compact, stacked form.

The front of the vehicle is the passenger compartment, which houses the joystick used to control the car. The joystick represents another innovation, a shift from mechanical control, like the steering wheel, to electric, “fly by wire” technology. “The rear compartment provides generous storage for baggage, groceries, and so on. When a CityCar folds, the baggage compartment remains level and low for easy access.” According to MIT:

“CityCars accommodate two passengers, which suits them to meeting the requirements of the vast majority of urban trips without excess capacity. They are designed for intra-urban trips, which are fairly short between recharge opportunities. This fits them gracefully to the capabilities of battery technologies that are presently available or likely to be available in the near future. They are not designed for inter-city travel, for which different technologies are more appropriate.”

The CityCar escapes some of the issues faced by traditional EVs like range and low top speed because it is ultra specialized, created to do one task and do it well rather than mirror internal combustion engines.

Rethinking the City

While the CityCar is a technological marvel, that only gets it so far. In order to make the project feasible, MIT scientists had to rethink the entire concept of the city and of urban mobility. They imagined a world where cars would be community owned and rented for immediate use, much like the Bikeshare programs and Zip Cars sprouting up recently. However, instead of reserving a car in advance or paying a monthly fee, users could just walk up to a stack of cars, swipe a credit card, take the top one, and drive away.

Sharing CityCars would remove the need for wasteful parking lots and eliminate the problem of finding parking, which creates unnecessary congestion and wastes fuel. Drivers could simply drop the car off at the stack nearest to their destination and walk away.

According to William Mitchell, director of the research groups, “We’re looking at urban personal mobility in a much more sustainable way than the private automobile provides.”

MIT went further by encouraging the development of a Mobility Internet that would link all CityCars, giving out real time traffic and destination information and allowing drivers to pick the best possible route. Ultimately, CityCars will be able to drive themselves, speeding communication, further reducing congestion and even potentially eliminating accidents all together. (There has been a lot of work done on this already, it’s a lot closer than you might think.)

Earlier this year, MIT and the European Union announced a 20 car pilot program in Vitoria Gasteiz, testing the shared use concept. The car has been renamed Hiriko, meaning “urban” or “from the city” in Basque. A number of other cities, including San Francisco in the United States, have shown interest in a similar program.

The CityCar has zero tailpipe emissions and is carbon neutral. It can recharge as frequently as necessary due to short intra-urban trips and has the potential to effectively replace thousands of conventional vehicles with notoriously poor fuel efficiency in urban environments. If implemented on a large scale, the CityCar could be a dream for urban planers, environmentalists and commuters.

For much more information on the CityCar project and the future of urban mobility, check out Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century. It is highly recommended.

Max Frankel is a senior at Vassar College and an intern at the Center For American Progress.

7 Responses to Paradigm Shift: The MIT CityCar And The Future Of Urban Mobility

  1. Hmmm, wasn’t the “Segue” also hyped as revolutionizing urban transportation?

  2. Mark Shapiro says:

    This is a Segway with four wheels.

    Very worth a try.

  3. Lisa Boucher says:

    Four wheels good, two wheels bad !!

    Baaahhh-aaaaahhhh …

    Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  My pulse is still elevated after hauling 30 pounds of groceries and other items back home on my BICYCLE.

  4. Mark Shapiro says:

    Right on!

  5. Joan Savage says:

    I’d be more game to try it if I knew about maintenance.

    Is there to be a garage and a scheduled maintenance program, with a way to pull units out of service for regular checkups?

    I was astonished to find out that a rental car company didn’t have a regular maintenance program for its cars. I mentioned a rattle, and the salesman said they just counted on their customers to mention stuff. [Then of course, they sell off their cars after a year or two.]
    The CityCar doesn’t look like individual vehicles would be sold off every couple of years, but who knows.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    Another concern with this is opportunity/ reliability of access.

    If you drop off one and go to an appointment or into a grocery store, what’s to say that when you come out there will still be one available to keep the interview clothes clean or cart home the frozen food?

  7. fj says:

    Anything that gets the size and weight of extra vehicle stuff per person moved is a change in the right direction but the ability to use human power provides for a major leap in resilience, ease of use, distributed on-demand practicality, maximum efficiency, etc.

    And hybrid human-electric powering provides for speeds and ranges comparable to cars and more advanced systems can surpass most if not all benefits of cars at bare minimal environmental footprints.