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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[…]

Implementing a new system of shared urban mobility is going to take serious behavioral modification.

Question: What will urban transportation look like in 50 years?

Ryan Chin: I think in the East Coast transportation will be pretty much the same. It will be very, very similar, primarily because we have lots of legacy costs and constraints because of legacy. I think the technologies will change. We’ll be electrified, much more electrified, but the road network won’t be very much different. The high-speed train, the apparent high speed train won’t be super high speed because of again legacy issues of being able to find straight shots from New York to Boston for example, but we will see the general electrification of vehicle transport. Public transit networks will probably be the same, very much so. They may have improvements, but most of the shift will be moving into hybrid and into electric charging technologies, especially for electric vehicles. What we envision in the Smart Cities group is eventually all parking spaces, not just garage parking spaces, but street parking spaces are charging stations, so whenever you stop the vehicle you’re picking up electric charge and the benefit of doing that is that you don’t to think about charging anymore. If you can just not have to go to a gas station or not go to a charging station, every time you stop the vehicle you’re charging the vehicle itself then you can reduce the overall burden of having batteries onboard. You can reduce that because then the range of the vehicle can be very short because most urban trips are very short and if you can pick up charge along the way that will be key.

In the far future you can even imagine wireless power transmission to the vehicle while it’s being moved, which is a very interesting concept that some people have already started to look at. Now I think it’s a little bit further out, but once you have that in place then the whole idea of having a place where you stop and charge doesn’t even need to exist anymore, you just pickup along the way and it doesn’t even have to be continuous. If you have some battery capacity onboard you can island hop, essentially go from one charged street to one that’s not and you know just have to make sure that the redundancy is there. That along with the emergence of autonomous driving and the combination of electrification will be the biggest change I see and one of the big challenges for autonomous driving is to scale down the size of all the computers that you see on some of these autonomous vehicles to something more reasonable and that’s one of the big things that I think will be the challenge for autonomous driving, but if that comes into play you can imagine that we probably will live in a very different world, although some of the structures will still be the same. If you think about Washington D.C. you know 50 years ago, it’s basically the plan is the same. You know there are a few minor alterations, but the technology has changed around it. Cities take a long time to change. Big Dig in Boston took 20 years to build. Just to submerge a tunnel underneath the ground, but changing the technologies I think can go much faster.

Question: What is the most difficult challenge Smart Cities is going to have to overcome?

Ryan Chin: I think the biggest challenge for our vision for Smart Cities is cultural, getting this thing out there and proving it to people and getting them to adopt these technologies. The burden of doing that will be in us being able to demonstrate this in reality, meaning building the vehicle itself, testing them out both in an individual vehicle, but also deploying pilot programs where you can try this out at small scale. I think once you have that in place that’s going to be the challenge. I think it’s the same challenge for most of the automakers too, which is doing these kinds of implementations. One of the fights that most of electric vehicle companies are having or automobile companies in general is they’re trying to make the car act like a traditional automobile. You’re taking a gasoline powered automobile, retrofitting it with an electric, so you’re basically replacing that and when you do that it’s very hard for battery technology to compare to the energy density of gasoline power and I don’t think that’s the strategy that we’re trying to deploy. We’re trying to reshape, rethink the way in which people use vehicles and then design it to be convenient to that and I think one of the challenges is when you design a vehicle. Today’s vehicle can be driven 300 miles, but most people don’t ride 300 miles. The average American drives maybe 40 miles. 80 percent of Americans drive less than 40 miles, so if you design a vehicle that is 80 miles in range that’s all you would need, so you’re carrying all this extra stuff around, so that’s the sort of traditional model. I think we’re getting around that problem and the bigger problem will be not the technology itself, but the adoption of these technologies and making sure that the technologies themselves are simple to use. That will be one of the key things. You don’t want to have a very complex new system where people can’t figure out how to use it and that you can prove by piloting these programs in cities in which you can get great impact, but also are progressive enough to adopt these new programs.

Question: What role will aesthetics play in the future of car design?

Ryan Chin: I think aesthetics are key. You really need to have a good eye for these types of things. A good example is the iPod. iPod is an MP3 player just like any other MP3 player and it was designed with design in mind, aesthetics in mind. It’s a very simple design. Most people find it attractive as a device and it’s no longer thought of as an MP3 player. It’s thought of the iPod and so we have to approach this design of the vehicle in the same way. When someone is using a car in the city it’s not just to get from A to B. It’s to look good. It’s to feel good. It’s to be stylish as well. So these vehicles have to be designed with aesthetics in mind and part of that is to blend into the city correctly as well. If you take a photograph of our design in a city and it doesn’t feel like it fits it’s probably not going to be accepted at all and I think philosophically this is also where I disagree with a lot of the bike sharing programs today. A lot of the bike sharing programs design very heavy, ugly bikes primarily because they don’t want people to vandalize them, but that’s one of the reasons why not many people are adopting them because they’re ugly and heavy. If you make a very beautiful bike or a very beautiful car perhaps you mitigate some of the vandalism, perhaps you will have more people adopt it because it’s very cool to be in one of these vehicles.

Question: How will you take into account varying climates?

Ryan Chin: Yes. I think it’s going to be important to be able to customize the vehicle for different climate situations and different terrain situations. The vehicle itself should work very well in winter climates because it’s all wheel drive vehicle, has 360 degree steering, so it has very torque at low end as well, so I think the driving performance should be fine in those situations. In colder climates the battery will not perform as well as warmer climates, so that’s one thing to consider. Rain, sleet, snow is another key area. These vehicles should be air conditioned as well and one of the ideas that we’re experimenting with now is to be able to preheat and pre-cool the city car, meaning that if it’s very hot out you should walking into the vehicle and it’s already at ambient temperature and one of the problems is if it’s very warm out and you get into a car that’s very hot you instantly blast the a/c to get it cool or in an opposite situation, when it’s very cold out you put the heater on. That drains the battery a tremendous amount, so with mobility on demand you have the capability of preheating and pre-cooling at the station because you already have placed the infrastructure there for charging, so if you’re plugging in the vehicle anyway you might as well control the temperature inside and that I think is a plus just from a comfort level point of view. So I think that there is going to be a lot of consideration on the climate based on those types of philosophies.

At the same time manufacturing the vehicle should really be regionalized as well, so the wheel robots can be mass produced, optimized for those different conditions and you know to drive the cost down, but at the same time you can then assemble the vehicle in different ways where you have regional manufacture of some of the key components other than the wheels themselves, so the interior, the exterior cladding for the vehicle. There may be different crash regulations in different parts of the world, especially Europe and Asia and so you want to be able to regionally manufacture those and not waste transportation costs and then snap them all together, so you can imagine a whole network of sub manufacturers that do this assembly in a very local, regional way and that meets the needs of that particular region and then you have this sort of mass producer that produces the standardized components of the vehicle that can either be shipped or can even made regionally as well. So I think the responsiveness should be there.

Question: Which cities could emerge as early adopters when it comes to Mobility on Demand systems?

Ryan Chin: The city of Paris, the city of London have already adopted very progressive policies when it comes to energy efficiency and sustainability. They have also road regulations as well. The city of Singapore has one of the best transportation networks in the world. In fact, they want to look aggressively at new technologies because they actually consult other cities on how to layout their transportation network, so I think Singapore is a great case. Some of the East Coast cities and West Coast cities of the United States where you have a lot of the innovation and you have a lot of young people, a lot of colleges where early adopters can join in can also be great sites for this and that could be New York, Boston, Chicago or even San Francisco, cities like that. Especially San Francisco where there is a desire to be green. City or Portland is another great city. There are a number of smaller cities that could also do it too. I think of Boulder, Colorado as a very progressive city, which already has a smart grid as well, so can identify cities that already have sort of invested in this, but again, the need for both business and political will has to be there to adopt these systems, to get them out there, to acquire the land to put the mobility on demand systems in place. Cities that already have both public transit networks, basic ones, but also local pollution is also a big driver too, so if you see the smog everyday you probably will want to change it more than the city that doesn’t have it. A good example here is in Boston. You know we do have local pollution, but it’s all swept out into the ocean, but in L.A. it’s in the basin and so you see it every day and you want to change it and there is a lot of cities like that as well. One particular city that has one of the greatest pollution problems is Kaohsiung, Taiwan, which is the most southern city in Taiwan. It’s the second largest city in Taiwan. They are the most polluted city in Asia and that is because most of the heavy industry of Taiwan is based there and they’ve just recently adopted a bike-sharing program themselves and they’re looking at these other programs to really compete with the other cities in Asia. So I think that the cities that may adopt this come in all different sizes and are all different places in the world.

Recorded on January 21, 2010