Oddly Enough

Tackling urban gridlock with foldable car

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (Reuters) - Wouldn’t it be nice to drive a car into town without worrying about finding a parking space?

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Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have devised just such a vehicle, a futuristic “City Car” that could even drive itself.

Once at your destination, the vehicle’s computers would, at the press of a button, look for a parking spot behind others like itself, then fold roughly in half so you could stack it there as you would a shopping cart.

“We have reinvented urban mobility,” said Bill Mitchell, a professor in architecture and director of the project at an MIT think tank in Cambridge, just outside Boston.

The vehicle hasn’t yet been built. But a miniature mock-up version has gone on display at a campus museum, and there are plans to build a full-scale model this spring.

The dozen or so engineers and architects on Mitchell’s team are confident their computer-generated work is on target.

They feel their golf cart-sized vehicle could provide a novel solution to the chronic traffic congestion afflicting cities across the United States, Europe and Asia -- not to mention pollution and energy use, since it would run on a rechargeable battery, the researchers say.

On the drawing board, their two-seater is roughly half the size of a typical compact automobile and a little smaller than the Smart car made by Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz.

“It’s a virtual computer on wheels,” said Franco Vairani, designer of the vehicle’s foldable frame, which he predicts will shrink the car to as little as an eighth the space needed to park the average car. While parked, it would hook up to an electricity grid for recharging, he added.

Hundreds could be stacked around a city and “you would just go and swipe your (credit) card and take the first one available and drive away,” Vairani said, seated by his computerized drawing board.

People wouldn’t have to worry about where to park their cars in town and automobiles would take up less urban space, leaving more room for parks and walkways, he added.

Peter Schmitt, a team engineer, says the car would have independently powered robotic wheels and be controlled using a computerized drive-by-wire system with a button or joystick.

Mitchell said he would like to bring the car to the manufacturing stage within the next three to four years.

But a key consultant for the project, Christopher Borroni-Bird, director of the Advanced Technology Vehicle Concepts at U.S. automaker General Motors Corp, said he doesn’t think City Car is quite ready yet for the road.

“What we have is a very intriguing concept,” Borroni-Bird told Reuters in a telephone interview. “It is certainly a very promising idea, but I don’t want to say it is ready for production ... there’s still a lot of work yet to take it from concept to production.”

Editing by Eric Walsh