A Complete Rethink

William Mitchell and the MIT Media Lab take on one of urban America’s hidden foes: the car.

When you think about it, the cars we drive today haven’t fundamentally progressed since the days of the Model T. They’re fine for moving multiple passengers over long distances at high speeds, but they don’t work as effectively in cities. Moreover, why do most of the cars on the market today look the same? In their new book, Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century (MIT Press), William J. Mitchell, who directs the Smart Cities research group at MIT’s Media Lab, and two industry experts, General Motors’ Christopher E. Borroni-Bird and Lawrence D. Burns (formerly of GM), reimagined the car. Metropolis’s editorial director, Paul Makovsky, spoke with Mitchell about how to make urban mobility more sustainable, why the car is a networked device, and why designers need to start thinking more holistically.

The title of the book is Reinventing the Automobile. What are some of the big ideas here?

The first one: design an ultralightweight, battery-electric automobile that’s specifically tuned to the needs of urban life, because most drivers actually live in cities. We came up with an automobile that’s less than 1,000 pounds. (Even a Prius is about 3,000 pounds.) When it’s unfolded—the car folds up for parking—it’s slightly shorter than a Smart Car. And from an energy standpoint, we’re talking about the equivalent of about 200 miles to the gallon.

All this comes from not just clever design but from rigorously redesigning the problem and saying, “Look, the architecture of the traditional automobile has been around for a hundred years now and responds to a set of conditions that made sense in the year of Henry Ford but doesn’t make sense anymore.”

And that’s just the first piece of the idea, correct?

That’s the vehicle level. And then the second idea is to integrate this with rethinking the electric grid, and particularly the emergence of smart grids. If you do plug-in cars that use the traditional grid, you’re relying on coal-fired power plants. You’re trying to make a cleaner and greener planet, but in the end power plants pump out huge amounts of CO2. So a key concept here is the idea of automatic recharging in parking spaces. It’s like your electric toothbrush. You never think about it. You put it back in its holder, and it recharges. This is critical. And it’s not the idea of electric charging that most people are thinking about.

Which is pull the plug and put it in the garage.

Yes, or battery swapping, which is an even dumber idea. Our idea is to shift the burden of recharging out of the moving vehicle and into fixed infrastructure. It’s looking at it from an urban-design perspective rather than a vehicle-design perspective. This throws an enormous amount of battery-storage capacity for free into the electric grid. Our electric auto is programmed to do energy trading back and forth, and this enables you to balance the energy flow, which is an important thing with electric grids.


A fundamental problem with electric grids is you have peak and off-peak situations, and you have to design for them accordingly. With smart grids, you can do very fine-grain dynamic pricing, and if you have smart consumers driving these smart electric automobiles, you can buy electricity when the prices are low and sell it when prices are high. This is an effective market-based way of balancing the electric grid. It also makes the grid much friendlier to clean-power sources, such as solar and wind. Right now there’s a big cost and practical disadvantage to these sources, because they don’t necessarily produce electricity when the grid needs it. They can exacerbate the grid-balancing problem. Here there’s a synergy between the grid and the way you’d want energy markets to work. The vehicles become dual-use devices. When they’re moving they provide mobility, and when they’re parked they’re not sitting around uselessly like a traditional automobile, but they’re producing power for the grid.

Talk about this idea of the car as an intelligently networked device.

Yes, they’re networked robots. Automobiles have connectivity now—GPS and increasing amounts of smarts—but they’re add-ons, and many of them are incompatible. The standard power supply in cars today is inadequate for supporting a lot of intelligence. Our notion is these lightweight autos that are much more like consumer-electronics devices than traditional automobiles. And my guess is they’re likely to be made on a large scale by manufacturers who look more like consumer-electronics manufacturers than traditional automakers. Once you’ve got that, you can extend the functionality of an automobile in all kinds of dimensions.

What kind of dimensions?

This is connected to the idea of mobility-on-demand systems as an alternative to private ownership of automobiles. The concept of doing stacks of electric vehicles at closely spaced convenient locations around the city. When you want to make a trip, you walk to the nearest stack, identify yourself electronically, pick up a car, and drive to a nearest drop-off point. It’s one-way rental. We can demonstrate that under most conditions, this gets you better door-to-door times than private-use automobiles.

Why? Because you’re not spending so much time looking for a parking spot?

Detroit always emphasizes getting into your car and traveling seamlessly to your destination. What they don’t mention? You have to park the damn thing at both ends. Private-automobile parking sucks up an immense amount of valuable urban real estate. It’s heavily subsidized, and the costs are hidden. We discuss that extensively in the book. Traditional automobiles sit around 80 percent of the time doing nothing. With mobility-on-demand systems, the automobile is useful all the time.

Did your team actually design a concept car?

We’ve designed two concept cars in parallel. One was based on the Smart Cities group at the MIT Media Lab called the CityCar—a foldable, lightweight electric automobile. And then there’s the PUMA that my GM colleagues developed with Segway, which sort of balances on two wheels.

When you say a “folding mechanism,” does the car actually compress?

It does. For the CityCar, we put everything in the wheels. There’s no engine, no traditional drivetrain. We have an independent drive motor, steering motor, and digital suspension in each wheel. The wheels are independent, so the car can spin on its own axis. Since there’s no big engine in front, this allows for front entry, so you can push the nose into the curb, fold it up, and do this in less space than the width of a stand-up parking bay. We get very high parking density without having to massively redo our streets.

How does this redefine the urban street?

It’s important to recognize that unlike putting in a new subway, we thought of this as a strategy for incremental transformation. You can overlay into the existing infrastructure.

The way New York City is adding bike paths?

Yes. You also improve the quality of streets enormously. These vehicles are silent, so you get rid of traffic noise, which has huge architectural implications, because windows no longer have to be defensive barriers against traffic noise. We get rid of local tailpipe pollution. There are all kinds of urban and street-design opportunities in taking the released space and putting it to other uses, like trees, seats, cafés. Streets are now more supportive of these things, so they’re much more pleasant places.

Let’s talk about Detroit. Do you see any hope coming out of there in terms of reinventing the car?

My GM collaborators are very smart and imaginative and came out of the research-and-development side of the company, which has always been good. We have a tremendously productive working relationship. However, I don’t have a lot of hope for the traditional automobile companies, because they’re committed to their existing business models. There’s tremendous inertia, huge fixed investments in old ways of doing things. That’s going to make it difficult for them to be successful players. I think we’re going to see new players.

How do we get away from this dinosaur thinking that impedes progress?

My designer’s bias comes in here. It’s important to get the technology and the policy right, but in the end, the way you break a logjam is by engaging people’s imagination, people’s desire, by creating things that they never thought of before. This is something that Apple has led the way in. So a crucial part of this will be to create sexy prototypes and convincing small-scale pilot projects in sympathetic environments.

I think this automobile project represents a real shift in approach. It’s about systems thinking, about how everything is related to everything else. How do you get designers—whether they’re car designers or architects or urban planners—to take this bigger-picture, more holistic approach?

One of the huge problems with design has been the way that the lines get broken up into these traditionally defined disciplines. You’re an architect or a graphic designer or a silicon-chip designer or an interaction designer, blah blah, blah. The big, important design issues just don’t fall in these categories anymore.

They sprawl in messy ways across them. We have architects, urban designers, economists, mechanical engineers, electrical geeks, and we put them together into an intense multidisciplinary design environment. And we do it in a way that’s different from the way that you’d organize a multidisciplinary team on an architectural project, where everyone has their role. We say, “Yes, you have expertise that you bring to the table, but it’s everyone’s responsibility to contribute to everything and educate the rest of the group as necessary on the issues that you know most about.” We knew nothing about battery technology when we started, but one of the great adventures of MIT is you can walk down the hall and find the world’s leading expert. The strategy is to go out, find what you need to know, and bring it back to the design project.

But isn’t MIT an exception here? It’s generally perceived as the epicenter of forward thinking. How do you get the rest of the country to adopt this model?

There are a lot of good universities. The model can be generalized, but design schools don’t want to do it. They drive me crazy: “We’re a unique culture.” That’s why I have a joint appointment in architecture and the Media Lab and a lot of activity in planning. But I do my work in the Media Lab because I couldn’t do it in the architecture department.


Because the identity of the architect is very important. Personally, I don’t care whether we call it architecture or if they call me an architect. I care about doing progressive, socially effective work. Wherever it takes me, I’ll go.

But we need to change the way we think about professional education. The standard way of thinking is: you go to design school for however many years, build a stock of intellectual capital, and then live off that. They give you a provisional education for the rest of your career. And it just doesn’t work anymore. The fundamental professional skill of a designer these days is strategically investing learning time. You must be able to say, “OK, there is an immensity of stuff out there to learn, but this is what’s important to instantly learn for this project.” You can never say, “Well, I’m an architect, so I don’t do battery technology.” You just can’t. These are the directions design schools and universities have to go in. The exciting thing is, engineering and business schools are starting to learn how important design is, how the most effective way of adding economic value is to do clever design, but they don’t have a clue yet how to do it.

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