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The car of the future is a work in progress

MIT students eye nuts and bolts

Think ''urban design" at MIT, and you visualize buildings like the futuristic Stata Center, designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry.

Near that landmark structure on Vassar Street, a brainstorming group of students is collaborating with Gehry and General Motors to design a new ''vehicle architecture," to, in effect, invent a new ''smart car" for the city and alter its landscape.

''We want to question the basic fundamentals," said Ryan Chin, an MIT doctoral candidate who is one of nearly two dozen students working on the Smart Cities research project for the school's Media Lab, led by William Mitchell, former deal of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning. ''For us, it's to provocate, to challenge the existing norm."

One of their radical notions is to look at the car from an urban designer's perspective. Could a car have a sensor to detect a pothole, or be part of a wireless network that would allow drivers to communicate with each other and warn of approaching traffic jams or help to locate parking spaces?

''The city is very interesting to us," Chin said. ''There are so many challenges for the car in the city."

Another key question for researchers: Can the car be a good citizen for the city? As Chin notes, the pothole sensor could provide valuable information to city officials by ''scanning the landscape."

And since the group is in Cambridge, there's been ''a lot of discussion about parking," said Axel Kilian, a doctoral candidate in computation in the Department of Architecture. One of their challenges: how to make more efficient use of parking spaces.

Since cars tend to be parked in one spot for hours and homeowner's driveways remain unoccupied during the work day, one idea is to negotiate with owners of parking spots, Kilian said. Another is for wired cars parked throughout the city to serve as Internet service points. ''Cars take up valuable real estate in the city center," Chin notes. ''What if the car could act as a hot spot? It could challenge the whole street life."

The students, in general, are questioning basic assumptions about all aspects of a car design. Does a wheel have to be round? Do you even need a steering wheel? What about a joystick or a control pad? And does a car still need to be made of sheet metal? What about a ''soft" car, made of surfaces that would prevent injury to pedestrians it might hit, or that would allow drivers to safely bump into one another on the highway?

In the area of passenger safety, one of their ''crazier ideas" as Chin puts it, is the creation of a ''wearable seat," to replace the restrictive seat belt and hold a passenger safely in the car. ''It would hold you like a mother holds a baby," he explains.

Kilian has been working on car door innovations to allow passengers an easier time of entering and exiting a car. ''It's almost a humbling experience, getting in the car," Kilian notes, particularly if you are elderly.

The students, who work on specific aspects in small groups, note that much of the technology to implement the changes already exists. The main challenge is the cost.

For car companies, ''even if a door costs 50 cents more, it's an issue, especially in lower-cost vehicles," Kilian said. GM officials, when presented with initial concepts, ''sometimes have been surprised, sometimes not," Kilian said.

Unlike typical researchers of concept cars, ''we have free reign," Kilian notes.

That's the joy and the challenge of the project, he says. ''We can explore any concept that is feasible in the time frame."

The end result remains a work in progress: GM has agreed to build the group's final design as a concept car in 2006 and proffers engineering and design help.

A free exhibit of the work so far is on view 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays through Oct. 15 at MIT's Wolk Gallery, Building 7, Room 338 (go to the main entrance at 77 Mass. Ave.).

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