Sustainable Urban Mobility

ORGANIZATION NAME: MIT Media Lab

LOCATION: Boston, Massachusetts, USA

From the 2009 Fuller Challenge Jury: The Sustainable Personal Mobility and Mobility-on-Demand System designs were submitted by an interdisciplinary student team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab Smart Cities Group.

“Given the nature of the crises we are facing, from climate change to economic collapse, what is important is to demonstrate that this approach to design and problem solving—while always thinking big—has the potential to bring about changes in the near-term. This project is a perfect example of the kind of radical, transformative change that is possible when we reconceive the old ways of doing things and take a systems-based approach to design.

This initiative isn't just about the design of these lightweight, highly efficient, electric vehicles, it is about inserting that technological innovation into the social and cultural environment and designing an intuitive system within which they function. The technological innovation embodied in these vehicles is just one piece of a larger system design which addresses issues from pollution, to congestion, to urban space, to economics, to energy use, to the very idea of personal transportation and what that means in a world with nearly seven billion inhabitants.”

SUMMARY: This initiative includes the design of lightweight, highly efficient, electric vehicles, and encompasses the framework in which the technological innovations are integrated into the urban social and cultural environment by designing an intuitive and functional system which utilizes advanced 'smart grid' technologies. The team from MIT's Media Lab have designed several new battery-electric vehicles – the CityCar, the RoboScooter, and the GreenWheel electric bicycle – that are utilized within mobility-on-demand systems. All of these vehicles are extremely lightweight, have small footprints, have no tailpipe emissions, and are extremely frugal in energy use. This is accomplished without compromising safety, comfort, convenience, or fun.

PROBLEM SPACE: The gasoline-powered private automobile was one of the greatest inventions of all time. Over the last century, it has radically transformed our daily lives and the forms of our cities.

However, it has become increasingly apparent that there are strict limits to scales at which automobile-based personal mobility systems can effectively and responsibly operate, and that we are fast approaching those limits. The proximity of limits shows up in the forms of rapidly growing negative externalities to automobile use – urban congestion, peripheral sprawl and inefficient land-use, excessive energy-use, petroleum dependence and the associated geopolitical/economic problems, local air and noise pollution, and carbon emissions contributing substantially to climate change.

In response to these problems, incremental improvements to automobile and road infrastructure technology are often worth pursuing. However, these technologies are very highly evolved and mature, so there is limited benefit to be derived from further evolution. An evolutionary path to improvement will not have a sufficient impact, within the necessary time frame, on the pressing problems of urban sustainability and global climate change. Instead, a radical reinvention of urban personal mobility systems is required.

We have designed several new battery-electric vehicles – the CityCar, the RoboScooter, and the GreenWheel electric bicycle – that are utilized within mobility-on-demand systems. All of these vehicles are extremely lightweight, have small footprints, have no tailpipe emissions, and are extremely frugal in energy use. This is accomplished without compromising safety, comfort, convenience, or fun.

Mobility-on-demand systems provide racks of these vehicles at closely spaced, convenient locations around an urban service area. Vehicles automatically recharge while they are in these racks. Users walk to the nearest rack, swipe a credit card, pick up a vehicle, drive it to a rack convenient to their destination, and drop it off. These are, in other words, ubiquitously distributed one-way rental systems.

These systems are highly efficient in reducing urban congestion, energy use, and carbon emissions. They are synergistic with ubiquitous wireless networking and distributed intelligence, and with solar-friendly, wind-friendly, fuel-cell-friendly smart electrical grids. There are some attractive business models for their introduction, and the political and economic climate is increasingly propitious.

SOLUTION: Our team has finished conceptual design for both the electric vehicles and the mobility-on-demand system. We are now engaged in the design development and have produced working prototypes for each of the vehicles including:

1. CityCar – Full-scale working prototype of the chassis.
2. RoboScooter – 2 show car quality full-scale prototypes, the first of which was showcased at the Milano Motorcycle show in November 2007.
3. GreenWheel Bicycle – Full-scale working prototype showcased at the Copenhagen conference on SmartBiking (prelude to the November 2009 U.N. Conference on Climate Change).

We have researched the top vehicle sharing systems in Asia, Europe, and the US and closely examined the world’s largest mobility-on-demand system, the Paris Vélib bicycle system, which employees over 20,000 bicycles and 1200 racks. This has allowed us to distill a best practices strategy for implementing a profitable and sustainable transportation system including sizing of the fleet, station placement, maintenance, and fleet logistics. We have also developed a system dynamics model which anticipates user demand and optimizes the vehicle supply chain.

Our team has engaged in discussions with the political leaders of San Francisco, London, Florence, Lisbon, Taipei, and Bangalore and has developed implementation plans for these cities. We have also created business models that account for the implementation and initial rollout, marketing, system growth, maintenance, and overall economic sustainability.

We will utilize the prize money for technical development and business modeling as a basis for pursing venture capital. Phase 1 implementation includes a pilot on MIT and Harvard’s campus, with the purpose of testing our system in a manageable area where we can learn and improve the system before full-scale deployment. The pilot including planning and implementation will take 2 years. The 3rd year will be devoted to city-scale deployment in of our candidate cities (mentioned above).

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