Ah, the pleasures of car-dom: independence, the thrill of the open highway, gas-guzzling… but, no. That's not quite what the folks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab have in mind. They think their City Car prototypes—two-passenger, fuel-efficient vehicles that bunch together like shopping carts—could be the next great thing in public transportation. And they could be here by year's end.
"Our vehicle is going to change the way we transport in dense urban areas," says architect and engineer Ryan Chin, studio coordinator for the project, which has design input from renowned architect Frank Gehry and is sponsored by General Motors. The idea is to situate rows of cars at subway or bus stops or other high-volume spots. You would remove the first car from the stack and drive it to your destination. You could keep it as long as you wanted, then return it to another stack elsewhere in the city to recharge for the next commuter.
Similar cooperative car networks have been in place for several years; the difference with City Car is its technology. It has no engine in the conventional sense. Instead, each wheel has an electric motor, brakes, and a suspension system that provides power and steering. "Wheel robots" can rotate on their axis in a complete circle—so when it comes time to parallel park, the driver can simply turn the tires 90 degrees and slide in sideways.
What's more, the same technology being used to make thin, flexible displays could be used to cover the inside or outside of the body—so a driver could program her car to display a personalized color or message. Another possible feature: a "wearable" seat with fingers that cradle the driver like a huge hand and eliminate the need for seatbelts or airbags.
Which is all very nifty. We'll miss that open highway, though.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.