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Smart Cities, Smart Cars, and the Media Lab

If you're in the Boston area this week, be sure to head over to MIT Wednesday evening for the presentation "Concept Car: A Work in Progress."

William J. Mitchell, head of the Media Lab's program in Media Arts and Sciences, together with Ph.D. candidate Ryan Chin, [...] will highlight the group's efforts to radically rethink how cars will be designed for the city of the future. Possible features for such vehicles could include programmable exteriors that change according to need; networked, embedded intelligence that can help a driver avoid a traffic jam or alert another car to a danger ahead; remote-control steering; or wheels that would enable “smart” parallel parking.

Rather than mere transportation devices, cars of the future can become our wheeled companions that continually learn about the city they inhabit, and use that knowledge to provide an intelligent interface to the resources the city offers. “Our hope is to invent a car that can function as though it has a good London cab driver built in,” says Mitchell.

The presentation is taking place at the Wolk Gallery, which currently hosts the "Smart City Cars in the 21st Century" exhibition, exploring the possibility of "automobiles that are not just dumb transportation devices, but intelligent inhabitants of their cities—wheeled robots that perceive, learn, remember, reason, and provide sophisticated, context-aware assistance and advice." The exhibit is hosted by the Smart Cities research group at the Media Lab. The Smart Cities project sounds intriguing, but its website is unfortunately quite stingy with information about the group's efforts.

The well-known (and controversial) architect Frank Gehry is part of the Smart Cities project, and leads the classes in which students explore a radical new car design. No doubt due to Gehry's involvement, the New York Times looks today at the class. One aspect of the design the Times mentions in passing is that the "basic parameters call for a hybrid or fuel cell power plant" -- a sign that the shift away from standard gasoline engines has taken hold in the design world (the inclusion of hybrid along with fuel cell technology is also a sign that the MIT team imagines that this vehicle could come about soon, not just at an unspecified future date).

The presentation Wednesday night is free and open to the public, and begins at 7pm; a pre-presentation reception begins at 5:30pm. Room details can be found in this press release.

I can't make it, being stuck over on the left coast, but if any of you go, please give us a report on the proceedings...

Comments (4)

Emily Gertz:

Noticed that bit about the fuel cell in the Times article-encouraging. Would also love to hear a reportback if anyone goes! (Am on the correct coast but a bit to the south.)


I'm going to the reception but have to leave before the lecture due to a previous commitment. Put the word out to the act-ma mailing list.

MIT through the Alliance for Sustainability has another project on "sustainable mobility." At one of their presentations I heard that they had no real idea about how to achieve that goal. When I pointed out that the sponsors of their project were the very companies that had dismantled public transportation in the US (GM, Firestone et alia including the major oil companies), I was told not to be so confrontational. And I thought I was being extremely soft-spoken and polite.

BTW, if there's anything at MIT or Harvard you want to have covered, please let me know and I'll see if I can do it for you.

Thanks, gmoke -- I'll keep that in mind.

As for the Alliance for Sustainability not having any ideas for sustainable mobility, send up to us. We'll fill them with ideas!


Alliance for Sustainability has plenty of ideas. They just don't see a workable solution. David Marks (dhmarks@mit.edu) is one of the honchos, probably the honcho for sustainability at MIT. You can use my name but don't tell him how reservations I have about the work I've seen.

Went to the reception last night. Posters on the wall, little stereolithograph models on shelves, a mock-up of their electric wheel in one corner. What I saw was basically a Swatch car with electric wheels. Talked to Ryan Chin, the Media Lab guy. He was well aware of every reference I gave him so they are doing their homework. They seem to be very enthusiastic and the lecture is the kick-off for this semester's course.

The focus was on the car in the city so no consideration of public transport as far as I could see. My friend Ambrose Spencer who has been an official at the Tour de Sol for years and years went to the lecture and promised to take notes. When I talk with him (may be a while), I'll write it up.


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