[Homestead] Making city-imcompatible cars compatible

Tvoivozhd 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 
as possible.

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


More information about the Homestead mailing list