BOSTON - Spent several days this week at an the EmTech@MIT emerging technology conference in Cambridge, Mass., where I was treated to demonstrations and theoretical discussions of innovations that could impact the way we work and live. Quite easily the most "holy cow" of those presentations was given by Ryan Chin, a doctoral student in the Smart Cities Group with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. Chin and his colleagues are working on a project that would radically transform the face of urban transportation. The project was actually started by the late William Mitchell, who was an MIT Professor of Architecture and Media Arts and Sciences. (Think for a minute about holding that job title.)
In a nutshell, this MIT team is working on a foldable electric car or scooter, or an electric bicycle that you could rent or hire just to get from point A to point B around town. Yes, that's right, foldable. If you're a parent, think about how your baby's stroller works (or worked) and you'll get a notion of the concept. Here's an image of what the car prototype looks like.
I'll describe it in a moment, but first, here are the basic problems that Chin and the rest of the team are trying to solve:
The vehicles that the MIT team is working on fall into what Chin describes as a "Mobility on Demand" system, or one-way rental system that lets you grab a bike, scooter or car and just drive it one way to go that last mile or first mile on a trip. The concept is similar to the "car sharing" one evangelized by ZipCar, and the city of Paris currently has a system like this in place using bicycles. There's actually a consulting company in Washington, D.C., called MetroBike that is working on business models around this as well.
Here's how it would work. Say you've got a job interview or appointment in a nearby city. There's a great train schedule into the city center, but from there, you're facing an uptown journey of almost a mile and a half, one that isn't served by a local subway line. Do you leave extra time to walk? If you were going to a city that was using CityCars or one of the other vehicles that the team is working on, you could shave some time off the commute. You would simply swipe a credit card and drive the vehicle to the nearest depot.
So, what's real? First, you should know that this isn't a new project. I found references back at least six years, so it's more mature than you think.Credit: Michael Chia-Ling Lin
The RoboScooter is progressing through a deal with Samsung, according to Chin. It is meant to act at the equivalent of a 50cc gasoline-powered scooter.
The GreenWheel technology, which converts your existing bicycle into an electric one, is also moving along. Chin said the 300-watt technology, which uses batteries from A123, can hold a charge for about 20 miles.
What about the car?
Chin says a fullscale prototype of CityCar is anticipated in the summer of 2011. That prototype is being built by the Spanish company commercializing these technologies, Hiriko. Cities that will be targeted for tests include Singapore, Boston, Taipei and Florence, Italy.
Here are some design points:
Here are some of the rather thoughtful questions that came up at the end of the presentation:
You might imagine situations where businesses could use CityCar as an incentive or a perk for employees. Or, alternatively, as a means of keeping their costs lower. One example cited by Chin would be a condominium association hoping to avoid building out a massive parking garage to accommodate conventionally sized vehicles. By building a charging infrastructure and giving out cars, it could cut costs
Chin also says the charging infrastructure itself could help with urban demand response for the electric grid. A fleet of 4,000 CityCars would require a charging infrastructure of about 20 megawatts, which ends up being about the right amount to charge the entire city of Boston for two minutes. If necessary, that capacity could help with peak shaving, he suggests.
For all its cool-ness, I have a rough time seeing Americans adapting quickly to this radical new concept for electric transportation. But Rome wasn't built in a day, either.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com