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What is the MIT Car?

Jeremy Laukkonen
Jeremy Laukkonen

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is typically involved in a wide variety of different research programs, many of them with automotive applications. MIT car may refer to a handful of different projects, such as the compact MIT city car, or their entry in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge. The MIT city car incorporates a number of different concepts, and is designed to provide an alternate way for people to travel within urban environments. Some features of the MIT city car include wheels that are powered by electric motors, computer systems for navigating and communicating with other vehicles, and a small frame that allows for ease of both movement and parking.

Research relating to the MIT car began around 2003 and examined a number of factors relating to the ways that people travel. Various issues and problems were identified, and the city car is seen as one potential solution. A lot of excess energy can be used moving heavy vehicles, and the MIT city car is designed to be light in comparison to many modern vehicles. The average weight of a car is about 3,000 lbs (about 1,300 kg), which can be twenty times more than the weight of the person driving it. According to MIT car research, this means substantial energy could be saved by using lighter vehicles in urban environments.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

MIT city cars are also more energy efficient through the use of robotic wheels. An individual, electronic motor in each wheel may allow these vehicles to move around in an energy efficient manner with no tailpipe emissions. These robotic wheels may also allow the vehicles to maneuver more easily in the cramped quarters present in some urban environments.

Parking is another issue addressed by the MIT car, as on average there can be four parking spaces per vehicle in an urban setting. This can represent a substantial amount of wasted real estate, while there is still an issue of too little parking in congested areas. The MIT city car may address this through a smaller physical size and the ability to stack in some way. Some MIT car designs would allow these vehicles to nest in a manner similar to shopping carts, which could provide a much more efficient use of space.

A team from MIT entered a vehicle into the DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007, which has also been referred to as the MIT car. Vehicles that participated in this contest used various sensors and computer systems to operate without a human driver. One purpose of this challenge was to foster the development of technology that could make driverless vehicles possible. This same sort of technology could be implemented in the MIT city car, allowing it to communicate with other vehicles in the network to avoid congestion and accidents without any driver input.

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