[Homestead] Making city-imcompatible cars compatible
tvoivozd at infionline.net
Wed Sep 8 14:25:54 EDT 2004
The Gehry car---making city-incompatible autos compatible.
The International Herald Tribune
Re-inventing the car for city life
Phil Patton NYT
Wednesday, September 08, 2004
NEW YORK The start of a new school year at MIT means that, once again,
students are about to reinvent the automobile. On Wednesday, the first
day of the autumn term, students and interested observers were to hear a
progress report by William Mitchell, a professor of architecture and
media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Ryan Chin, a
Ph.D. candidate, on a project to create a car for the city of the future
by the institute's Media Lab. The design study grew out of Chin's
doctoral thesis, which compared the way cars are designed with the ways
buildings are designed.
Begun two years ago with help from General Motors, a longtime sponsor of
the Media Lab, the project's early stages included a bonding session in
which participants learned about vehicle dynamics at the Skip Barber
driving school in Monterey, California.
Though the project is still virtual - a rolling prototype is at least a
year away - the vehicle is widely known on campus as the Gehry car for
the involvement of the architect Frank Gehry. Mitchell brought Gehry,
who designed MIT's Stata Center, into the program.
So far, the car is best embodied in a tapered silvery shape, part bug
and part model for a science-fiction film. This is not the way the car
will ultimately look. The project is really many cars, represented in
cardboard, wood and foam models expressing the ideas of a group of
students. Many of these will be on display at the institute's Wolk
Gallery through Oct. 15.
Various iterations of the car have been generated in Catia, the design
software created by Dassault Systemes of France that is now a mainstay
of the auto industry. It has also been used by Gehry and his technology
expert, James Glymph, to design the folds and bends of metal in such
buildings as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert
Hall in Los Angeles.
For Mitchell, the keynote of the project is understanding the automobile
and the city as a single system. "We see the automobile as much an
information device as a transportation one," Mitchell said. "It should
know what you want and what the city has, and be able to relate the
two." The project envisions networked vehicles with a bank of integral
information, including parking and navigation - cars as smart and
helpful as a London taxi driver.
The goal is to dissect the structure of the car and look at it afresh.
The process is like diagramming a sentence; by working through the
problem so logically and unemotionally the designers anticipate
discovering new possibilities. GM hopes to learn from MIT, and many are
intrigued to see what an acclaimed architect can bring to auto design.
"We want to step back and rethink the automobile from scratch," Chin
said. "We are parsing the language of automobile building." The parts of
speech of automobiles - power plant, seating, steering and so on - were
represented in one exercise by brightly colored wood blocks that
together look like an abstract work of art.
The seminar on wheels has spawned offbeat ideas. One version of the car
changes length, accordion style, to accommodate extra passengers.
Another wraps the seat and door into a single unit, along with air bags.
The basic parameters call for a hybrid or fuel cell power plant, and
drive-by-wire controls that replace mechanical links to the brakes and
throttle with electronic connections.
The body structure is a combination of exoskeleton and softer passenger
compartment, tagged the "egg in the egg carton" around the Media Lab.
The most striking elements of the car are wheels that incorporate
electric motors and the suspension inside their circumference. This
innovation promises to ease the task of parking on narrow Cambridge
streets near the campus. Cambridge parking challenges also seem to have
inspired the idea of the "smart curb," one area where the Media Lab
succeeds in sharpening the familiar vision of networked cars. In this
concept, parking spaces would electronically report their availability.
Feeding this information to vehicles would create what Mitchell calls a
market in parking, providing a more efficient way of finding a spot.
Eventually, after the new crop of students has put nine more months or
so of work into the project, the more developed designs will be turned
over to Gehry and his office.
"Frank will more than likely end up styling it," said Mitchell, not
embarrassed to use a word Detroit avoids these days. Gehry and his
associates will collaborate with GM's California design office and Wayne
Cherry, the company's former design chief.
Mitchell can laugh at being confused with another Mitchell - the one who
ruled GM's design studio in the glory days of the 1960s - but he also
appreciates style as well as engineering. "One of the things architects
have been good at is making something that is functional into something
that is also compelling, to capture people's imagination," Mitchell said.
Gehry has often looked at things with a fresh eye, making furniture from
cardboard or strips of wood bent like hockey sticks. But shaping the MIT
car will be challenge. The ability to style ideas, too, to create catchy
visions of future tech has long been the Media Lab's strength. A clever
name like smart curb goes a long way. In experimenting with different
ways of arranging passengers inside the car, students came up with a
pattern they call rock-band seating.
Such phrase-making is good styling and good media making. Envious
professors from other areas of the institute have grumbled that the
"Media" in Media Lab refers mostly to getting as much of its attention
The comparison of design and architecture with language may be useful,
but is metaphorical, not literal. And language only begins with grammar.
It is one thing to speak or write correctly, another to do so with
meaning and feeling. The Media Lab's car will need some rhetoric, some
prosody, perhaps even some poetry to become more than an academic exercise.
The New York Times
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