MIT reinvents the wheel with foldable, stackable car

Cars can be stacked eight deep in one parking space.

Ever wish you could drive around the city but not worry about parking?

If so, several MIT researchers may have just the thing for you. A team at the university is working on a design project for the City Car, a foldable, stackable two-seater vehicle. No, that's not a typo. The frame of the car is designed to fold in half so the cars can be stacked up eight deep in one city parking space.

Franco Vairani, a Ph.D. candidate at MIT and one of the original designers in the City Car project, said his team is taking a vending-machine approach to city travel. In his vision of the future, people would find a stack of electrical-powered City Cars on nearly every block in the city. When a user would want to drive somewhere in town, he would swipe a smart card or cell phone across an electronic reader and take a car out of the stack. When he gets to a business meeting across town, a shopping mall or their doctor's office, the driver simply leaves the car in a stack at his destination. The drivers don't own the cars. They simply rent them. It's fully self-service. The next person takes a car out of the stack, and off he goes.

Time magazine recently named the project one of the Best Inventions of the Year.

According to Vairani, the team is trying to rethink the relationship between cities and automobiles.

"At one point, I was having a conversation with Will [Lark], and we wanted to find a solution to parking," said Vairani. "There's a huge number of cars in parking garages, on the side of the roads. They don't do anything for eight hours a day, and then they go a few miles, and then they don't do anything again. What if people didn't own them? What if they used them and then folded them up and stacked them away?"

The City Car team is in the process of having a prototype of the vehicle built. Vairani said General Motors, sponsors the Media Lab where his team works, but it doesn't have an agreement with any manufacturer to buy the plans.

The two-seater is designed to weigh 1,000 to 1,500 pounds, according to Vairani. Right now, it's expected to cruise at average city speed limits and may even be capable of topping 100 miles per hour.

One of the more interesting aspects of the design, said Vairani, is that electric motors will be built into each wheel, along with mechanisms for steering, braking and the suspension. "It's a robotic unit that is completely independent, and it's a wheel," explained Vairani. "Inside the wheel, we pack pretty much everything needed to move a car. The car has four of these wheels, and that's what drives the vehicle forward. The car doesn't have an engine. There are no gears. No transmission. This is a very efficient way of using energy."

Electric-powered City Cars could be stacked on nearly every block in the city.Electric-powered City Cars could be stacked on nearly every block in the city.

He also said having so much of the technology in the robotic wheels frees up a lot of space throughout the rest of the vehicle, allowing the team to make it collapsible. Vairani noted that there is a hinge in the frame beneath the passenger cabin. The cabin itself does not fold, but the frame that supports the cabin folds in half, pushing the cabin into a nearly vertical position.

While the vehicles are in the stack, waiting to be rented out, their lithium-ion batteries would be charging off the city's power grid. But the project is designed to give power back to the city, too. Solar panels erected on nearby buildings would feed energy into the charging stations and when the cars' batteries were full, the excess power would flow into the city's grid.

"It's definitely not going to solve all the problems," said Vairani, who added that a professor supervises the design team, which includes five students who work full-time on the project and 10 who work on it part-time. "It's about presenting an alternative to how we think about cars right now. The goal was to increase the efficiency of the whole transportation system. It's not going to be as efficient as mass transit, but it combines the advantages of personal mobility with ... the ability to take people exactly where they're interested in going. ... It's about how people move in the city."

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Sharon Gaudin

Computerworld
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?