Ryan Chin and his colleagues are building the car of the future—a stackable, electric, shared two-passenger city vehicle that rethinks urban mobility. This work, in collaboration with General Motors, takes into account problems of parking, congestion, communication, and energy distribution, and considers the best and most efficient uses of available resources in an urban environment. The project also serves as a platform for investigating Ryan's interests in mass-customization and personalization in product-development processes.
Question: What other transportation vehicles are you working on in the Media Lab?
Ryan Chin: We’ve also developed two other vehicles. One is called the RoboScooter. It’s an electric folding scooter. We did that with SYM, which is a scooter manufacturer in Taiwan. That vehicle, like the city car uses in-wheel electric motors and it’s very lightweight. It uses just one-tenth of the parts of a traditional gasoline powered scooter. It weighs half the weight of a traditional scooter. It’s about 90 pounds and again, it can be used in mobility on demand systems. You can imagine a mobility on demand network of these vehicles at charging stations where you can pick up and drop off the scooter. What we’ve also noticed in doing these studies is that in many places, particularly in Asia the pickup and drop off points may be different than they are in the West and in Europe. For example, in Taiwan they have the highest density of convenience stores in the world. 7/11’s are on every block, so you can imagine placing you know almost a scooter vending machine outside of every 7/11 and when you go to 7/11 you pick up a scooter or every convenience store that you go to or every donut shop that you go to here in Massachusetts. There are lots of donut shops. If you can imagine going to every one of these stations and picking up and dropping off that way. So what we’re trying to do is create a network that is looking for landing points in the city that are fairly ubiquitous, bus stops, convenience stores, schools. In Europe you know the Piazza is a great common gathering place. So I think that the scooter fits in very well because it’s very compact and it can fit into very narrow streets.
The scooter itself is something that we’ve been working on for a little bit of time now, about a year, year and a half and it’s quickly moving into production. In fact, we’re looking at production of scooters for the Chinese market pretty soon and we think that the key to the development of mobility on demand is to get the different vehicle types out there as quickly as possible. Each vehicle will have its different level of complexity in getting it out there as a product, so we’ve developed essentially an ecosystem. You have the car, which is the most complex vehicle. It has the greatest carrying capacity. We have the scooter, which is in the middle and then the last one is the bicycle that we’ve designed. The bicycle is called the Green Wheel Bicycle, Green Wheel Electric Bicycle. It’s an electric assist bicycle and so the idea is we’ve placed the in-wheel motor inside the hub of the wheel, just like we have for the other vehicles, but for a bicycle and the bicycle, the Green Wheel is an electric assist, so when you come to a hill you hit a button or a throttle control and provides electric power to the rear wheel, so it can help you to overcome the hill and it basically allows you to extend the range of someone that’s traditionally you know riding a bicycle, so you can overcome hills and go further distances. And the other key thing is that the Green Wheel is very modular, so it can fit in any standard bicycle, so you can take a regular bike, remove the rear wheel, put this new wheel unit in it and then now you have an electric bike. The controls are either on the handlebar or on the pedals of the bike and so that’s how you activate the wheel to be powered up and interesting thing about this is that it should open up the demographic of people riding bicycles, not just able bodied young people, but now seniors can ride. A couple that is a little bit older and one is… one of the couples is… has a hard time catching up, you can give that person an electric boost to be more social and to ride together. So I think that there opens up the whole demographic. Again, the Green Wheel like the RoboScooter and the city car can be used in mobility on demand systems and in fact, a lot of the existing bike sharing programs that exist today can be retrofit with the Green Wheel, so that you have some traditional bicycles and some that are electric. In fact, I think that’s going to open up so many more people to bicycling, which is one of the greatest inventions of all time is just the bicycle itself, a very energy efficient way of getting around in cities.
Question: Why are other countries already invested in electric bikes?
Ryan Chin: Electric bikes are very, very popular in China. They’re not being used in mobility on demand bike sharing programs. They’re just private use. In fact, China has already produced almost 100 million electric bikes in the last 10 years, so every year they’re producing 10 to 20 million electric bikes over 50% of which are for the domestic market, for the Chinese market, so that’s really you know taking off. In Europe electric bikes are very popular. In France, in Italy and also in Germany and in Holland you know almost 100,000 bikes being sold in… for the Dutch. So it’s really blowing up. In the US the market is small, but I think most people think of electric bikes as recreational and not basic transportation in the US, but I think that’s going to change dramatically, especially with these bike-sharing programs coming into play. Gas prices have changed a lot of behavior of consumers and at the same time there is a lot of gentrification of city centers now too, especially in the South. Louisville, Kentucky for example has a lot of people moving back into the center, reclaiming a lot of the sort of old warehouses in the city. There has been a big turnaround. Charlotte, North Carolina the same sort of behavior too, so I see the gentrification along with this movement and I think that there is actually a general too and you can see this in Japan where a lot of young people aren’t interested in owning cars anymore. It’s not cool to own a car anymore. It’s a burden to own a vehicle. I want to be more of a cool, hip young urbanite instead and that’s been a big trend as well. And of course those empty nesters are starting to move back into the city as well. This is a very common thing where you know kids have gone to college and we don’t need a big suburban home anymore. People are starting to look to move back into the city as well, so I think that’s a general trend. That’s a very Western trend. I think in the East and in Asia the urban densification is because of economic opportunity. That’s happening in Africa as well. Those two continents will be for the next 20 to 30 years where most of the growth will be in terms of population growth and the majority of that will be in cities, in dense urban areas and that’s primarily because of the economic opportunity there.
Recorded on January 21, 2010