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The Smart Cities group at the MIT Media Lab is working on two low-cost electric vehicles that it hopes will revolutionize mass transit and help alleviate pollution. Next week, the group will unveil a prototype of its foldable electric scooter at the EICMA Motorcycle Show, in Milan. A prototype for the team’s foldable electric car, called the City Car, is slated to follow next year.

The MIT group sees the vehicles as the linchpin in a strategy that aims to mitigate pollution with electric power, expand limited public space by folding and stacking vehicles like shopping carts, and alleviate congestion by letting people rent and return the vehicles to racks located near transportation hubs, such as train stations, airports, and bus depots.

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

The group’s strategy will efficiently solve the “last mile” problem without losing the virtues of the private automobile, Mitchell says. The last mile is that inconvenient distance between any major transit stop and a person’s final destination. While a traditional automobile provides mobility on demand and gets you to your destination, its negative externalities–congestion and pollution–seem intractable.

At the heart of these vehicles is an omnidirectional robot wheel that the team has developed. The wheel encases an electric-drive motor, as well as suspension, steering, and braking systems. With no engine or mechanical parts between the wheels and the driver’s controls, the system offers great flexibility in design. The driver can, in fact, fold the car up (see below image). Six to eight folded and stacked City Cars can fit into one conventional parking space. General Motors sponsored the development of the car.

This illustration shows how City Cars stack together.
Credit: Franco Vairani

The wheels also enable incredible maneuverability. Instead of making U-turns, the car can spin on the spot, and when the driver turns each wheel 90 degrees, the car can parallel-park by moving sideways.

“The idea for a wheel motor has been around for a long time,” says Peter Schmitt, designer of the wheel. But Schmitt says that the advantage of his design is that the wheel is controlled by software instead of by mechanical coupling.

The MIT team’s vision of deploying these cars in a shared-use, personal-mobility system isn’t new either. In Lyon, France, a company called Velo’v recently introduced a shared-use bicycle system throughout the city. Based on its initial success, the Velo’v system is being extended to Paris with approximately 2,000 stacks and 20,000 bicycles.

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Credit: Franco Vairani (top), Peter Schmitt (bottom)

Tagged: Computing, software, MIT, electric cars, electric vehicle, automobiles

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