Compact Car Technology Sparks an Interest

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 12, 2007

It's a compact electric car that can carry two people, with a range of 10 miles before its batteries need recharging. Commuters could pick up a car at one of the planned Metro stations serving Dulles International Airport and drive home, returning the car the next day. Or tourists could zip between downtown Metro stations and the Mall.

Inspired by prominent architect Frank O. Gehry and designed by a bunch of young Massachusetts Institute of Technology students, the personal vehicles they call CityCars could provide a partial solution to the region's transportation woes. Fairfax Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock), who read about the cars in a magazine, has asked county transportation officials to investigate whether the technology would work in places such as Fairfax.

The underlying problem is that Metro doesn't take suburban residents close enough to their destinations, so they continue to drive on increasingly overburdened roads to get from place to place.

"We need to step back and look innovatively at transportation solutions, and this looks like an innovative way to handle passengers," Bulova said.

But are CityCars affordable, practical and safe? Would they run on streets or on bike trails and sidewalks? Would auto-loving Americans be willing to give up their big sport-utility vehicles and shift to mini-cars to get themselves to the train on time?

The 1,500-pound car is still in development, so no one knows how much it will cost. It was originally conceived by Gehry, who designed the strikingly modern, titanium-covered Guggenheim Museum in Spain and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. The students, led by research scientist Franco Vairani, have spent years developing the concept. They received money and support from General Motors, a sponsor of MIT's Media Laboratory, which specializes in developing breakthrough technologies.

The four wheels on the car rotate, which make the vehicles easy to park because they all steer. Cars would be stored like luggage carts at the airport, with vehicles nesting into one another so that six of the cars fit in the space normally taken by one car. The CityCars would have digital locks that would be remotely accessible to avert theft.

CityCars could be available at Metro and Virginia Railway Express stations and could also be at major shopping centers, shuttling people from, say, Tysons Corner Center to Tysons Galleria. The possibilities are endless, especially in planned communities such as Columbia, Burke and Reston or anyplace in Washington with an extensive network of bicycle trails.

Passengers would swipe a preauthorized card to get access to a car, which they could ride home. Then they would recharge it before returning it. The cars could be owned by governments or shared, like the rent-by-the-hour ZipCars, and managed by a private company.

Although most of Bulova's colleagues on the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors back her request for more information about the personal vehicles, Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully) was skeptical of the concept.

"If we put these on our pedestrian pathways, I would raise significant safety issues" about them, he said.

Ronald F. Kirby, director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said he finds the idea intriguing but echoed Frey's safety concern. He worries that the CityCars wouldn't meet the crash safety standards required of regular automobiles if they went on roads, and they could add to bike path crowding: speeding bicyclists mingling with slow-moving children walking their pets and oblivious joggers listening to music on headphones.

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