Reinventing the Automobile

Reinventing the Automobile

Contribution by Sheryl Sulistiawan

Three experts believe we need to update the way we think about modern transportation-particularly the automobile. William Mitchell, Christopher E. Borroni-Bird, and Lawrence D. Burns have created blueprints for transforming the current automobile landscape into one that’s more appropriate for our social, city-based, interactive society.

Their book Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century sees a future of cities filled with smart cars driven by electricity instead of mechanics, and features that emphasize inter connectivity and more efficient mobility.

Here are some of their big ideas.

Electric-drive vehicles are essential to adapting to urban neighborhoods. This graph shows how different types of electric vehicles can be used for various transportation purposes.

The authors’ new proposed architecture features an electric “skateboard” to replace the traditional engine. The skateboard is a flat foundation holding the batteries or fuel cells, which would eliminate the engine compartment and allow for more flexibility in design. Cars that fold or balance on two wheels are a couple of options made available, reducing the vehicle’s footprint.

A new architecture would allow for new options for entering and exiting the car. Getting rid of the engine and moving the steering wheel would allow for entering and exiting from the front, creating more options for parking.

Designating separate smart vehicle lanes is also important to creating a more efficient infrastructure, especially within tight, urban communities. This illustration proposes a separation that accommodates pedestrians, bicycles, light vehicles, cars and buses.

MIT’s Media Laboratory has developed and prototyped the CityCar, a light vehicle with a standard four-corner wheel configuration. Each wheel is independently, digitally controlled, and can vary both direction and speed, allowing for a much wider range of maneuvering than today’s traditional automobile.

The CityCar’s ability to maneuver each wheel independently makes it particularly ideal for tight urban conditions, as it would make parallel parking and three-point turns much easier with sideways driving and circular motions.

The CityCar has a completely digital, drive-by-wire driver interface, and is driven with a two-handed joystick. The driver pushes the handles forward to accelerate, pulls them back to brake, and rotates them to steer. A flat video screen on the front door provides dashboard information.

The breakdown of the CityCar is much simpler than a gasoline-powered automobile or hybrid car. It doesn’t have any sheet metal, paint or complex details, and can have a cast-aluminum exoskeleton and polycarbonate panels similar to the cockpits of fighter planes. The side panels can be removed for emergency exit. As for additional safety features, electronic sensing and wireless communications can reduce the likelihood ofcrashes, and the low mass and relatively low speed can reduce the energy of a crash.

The Project P.U.M.A. (Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility) is a concept that was introduced to the public in April 2009 by General Motors and Segway. The battery-electric vehicle has two seats and two wheels side by side. It features a lithium-ion battery, vehicle-to-vehicle communication, a dockable handheld user interface, and autonomous driving and parking.

Ultra small vehicles (USVs) like the P.U.M.A., the CityCar, and Franco Vairani’s bitCar concept shown here significantly reduces parking space requirements by allowing for folding and stacking solutions. Ultimately, USVs are designed for cities, eliminating the need for cities to be designed around cars.

Street parking can be used to charge electric powered USVs by implementing “smart curbs” that carry electrical supply. They can fit under the USV’s nose and connect to charging points on the underside. Smart curbs have the design advantage of not taking up additional street space and not obstructing pedestrian movement.

“Smart walkways” can be similarly employed in existing parking structures, providing a separate space for pedestrian traffic.

Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Mobility for the 21st Century thoroughly explains these ideas along with the advantages, as well as the difficulties, of implementing a new breed of vehicle and its corresponding infrastructure.

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