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From folding cars to robotic walls: 5 innovations to make future cities far more livable

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Big cities across the globe will soon be getting much, much bigger. As architect Kent Larson shares in this future-focused talk from TEDxBoston, 90 percent of the world’s population growth is expected to happen in cities. But while newly established cities tend to sprawl to accommodate growth, Larson envisions that the metropolises of the future will look more like cities of the past — for example, Paris — with tight-knit neighborhoods offering residents everything they need within the radius of a 20-minute walk.

So how will we live comfortably with even more people crammed into even smaller areas?

Larson and his colleagues at the MIT Media Lab are working on several innovations to make city dwelling far more livable, though the Changing Places research group and City Science Initiative. To hear more of the lab’s plans, watch Larson’s talk. Below, take a closer look at five of their fascinating research projects.

A tiny car that can be parked anywhere: Hiriko (originally
Brief description: This tiny two-person vehicle not only spins and runs off a rapid-charging battery — it also physically folds in order to minimize its parking footprint. Three of these small vehicles can fit into one traditional parking space. But the idea here is potentially even bigger. The MIT Media Lab envisions that these vehicles would be available for shared use, on demand. When you need one, you head to your nearest charging station to pick one up, returning it when you’re done.

When will it be available? The MIT Media Lab has been working with Denokinn, an innovation lab which focuses on turning ideas into products, to manufacture and distribute this vehicle. The full-scale working prototype will be crash tested this year and, if it passes, will go into production by 2013. (Read the New York Times’ announcement of the vehicle’s production.)

Project team members: For CityCar: Ryan C.C. Chin, William Lark, Jr., Nicholas Pennycooke, Praveen Subramani, and Kent Larson. For Hiriko: Ryan C.C. Chin, Kent Larson, William Lark, Jr., Chih-Chao Chuang, Nicholas Pennycooke, and Praveen Subramani

Headlights that communicate with pedestrians: AEVITA
Brief description: The city of the future will no doubt be filled with autonomous cars. So how will pedestrians know they’ve been seen without a driver that can make eye contact? AEVITA (Autonomous Electric Vehicle Interaction Testing Array) is designed to allow autonomous cars to interact with the world around them, giving pedestrians cues of recognition, and making driving intentions obvious to others.

When will it be available? There are no current plans for commercialization.

Project team members: Kent Larson, William Lark, Jr., Nicholas David Pennycooke and Praveen Subramani

Bikes for elderly and disabled: Persuasive Electric Vehicle (PEV)
Brief description: Bike lanes are generally the province of the young and fit. However, the MIT Media Lab is creating vehicles to allow the elderly and disabled to use them too. These three-wheeled electric vehicles are legal for bike lane use because they require pedaling, while giving the rider an electric boost of up to 20 mph. But the use here could be even further reaching — this vehicle would be perfect for the businesswoman who has to wear a suit to the office, but wants a workout on her way home.

When will it be available? At the moment, thereare no plans for commercialization.

Project team members: Michael Chia-Liang Lin, Sandra Richter, William Lark, Jr., Nicholas Pennycooke, Ryan C.C. Chin, and Kent Larson

An apartment that changes, thanks to robotic walls: CityHome and Robot Walls
Brief description: 850 square feet is not a lot to work with. But an apartment can be made to feel twice that size through a transformable wall system that morphs with the push of a button. With robotic walls, a bedroom can transform into an office, or open up into a party space. A living room can morph separate offices or become a larger meeting space. Each resident would work with a designer to figure out their needs, configuring the perfect system for their demands.

When will it be available? A full-scale working prototype has already been designed. While commercial production is not yet planned, fabrication and assembly is set for the fall of 2013.

Project team members: Kent Larson, Daniel Smithwick and Hasier Larrea

Do-it-yourself sunlight for tiny apartments: Robotic Façade/Personalized Sunlight
Brief description: By placing a lot of small apartments within one large structure, many abodes sacrifice direct sunlight. This mass-customizable module combines solar control, heating, cooling and ventilation — while increasing energy efficiency — and allows residents to program a personalized sunlight plan for their apartment, using their cell phone.

When will it be available? There are not currently plans for commercialization.

Project team members: Harrison Hall, Rogen Lonergan, Kent Larson and Shaun David Salzberg

Want some more ideas on how we’ll live in 20 years? Here, five fascinating cars of the future.

Comments (24)

  • commented on Dec 27 2013

    Is anybody asking if these technologies will make our lives better?
    Luis Almeida, TEDxPhoenixville, 2013.

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  • team turner commented on Feb 21 2013

    Simply believed i’d remark as well as state style, do a person signal this your self? Appears excellent.

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  • Justin Templemore-Finlayson commented on Sep 15 2012

    Such a disappointing post with blunt ideas and poor targets, I expect more from the media lab than:

    1. Rechargeable shared cars (done, eg autolib in Paris) that fold up, if you replace private transportation with shared cars, the space problem disappears.

    2. “Persuasive Electric Vehicle” WTF? I can only hope that’s a typo! Anyway, since when are old
    people invalid? Go to China and look at who’s on a bike. They’re pervasive.

    3. Robotic walls are … idiotic. If you’ve ever actually lived in a small space you know that that space needs to be a shared space. Walls can be moved by robots, but the life enclosed in those walls cannot easily be compacted, unless it is empty. Anyway, go to a city where therw is little spaceand see the idiotic sorry robotic solutions that exist – nothing to study here, unless you like robots.

    4. AEVITA ok we’re definitely going to need to think about autonomous cars in our lives. But if the cars are controlled tightly and restrained to “transit corridors”it should be possible to manage pedestrian access. Look to automated metro which solved this problem.

    5. Any “future vision” that includes as a selling point “controlled from your cell phone” deserves to be ignored.

    • Nathan Wilson-Greene commented on Sep 16 2012

      Perhaps you did not listen to the talk. You would see that your 5 points are off the mark.

      1. The shared cars used by Autolib in Paris have conventional internal combustion engines, and are not designed for central cities where space is at a premium. Needed is a small, lightweight quite, electric vehicle that uses far less energy. That it folds to take up 1/3 the land when parked is an incredible advantage. That is designed specifically for shared use systems. The car he presents seems ideal

      2. He talked about a 3-wheel vehicle that is easier to use by elderly and disabled people and others who would not normally use bikes. China is filled with 3-wheelers in bike lanes. He just takes it to the next logical step. I am not sure what your point is.

      3. He talked about a single small space that can convert from living to work or party or guest sleeping spaces – so no need to have single purpose spaces. Seems like a great idea. I am not sure I would call these movable walls “robotic” – they are just movable walls – but it seems like an excellent idea and much needed in cities where condos and rents are beyond what most young people – the life blood of the city – can pay.

      4. Constraining autonomous vehicles to fixed lanes as you suggest defeats the purpose. We already have fixed-route mass transit. We need vehicles for the areas that are not covered well by mass transit – exactly what the speaker is proposing.

      5. I took this comment as shorthand for the need to new interfaces to control our environment. Yes indeed.

      My suggestion to you: go back and listen carefully and objectively to the excellent talk. I suspect that you will be enlightened.

      • commented on Dec 27 2013

        And Amen!

    • commented on Dec 27 2013

      Amen. :)
      Luis Almeida, TEdxPhoenixville 2013.

  • commented on Sep 14 2012

    Reblogged this on farmCAT and commented:
    This is cool, but I wouldn’t want to drive it! What’s the point of the car’s ability to fold up? Save space?

  • Karan Kapoor commented on Sep 14 2012

    I think this might not be possible in india, traffic is very horrible here

  • commented on Sep 13 2012

    Reblogged this on @Uri Shavit and commented:
    The future looks bright ! :-)

  • commented on Sep 13 2012

    Reblogged this on designgotsmall.

  • Gerhard Boiciuc commented on Sep 13 2012

    Such great ideas!! Traffic and parking are certainly some the biggest challenges in today’s cities and there are great ideas and products out there offering great solutions. Gerhard Boiciuc, Faspark.

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  • Sean Fairbrother commented on Sep 13 2012

    ‘There are not currently plans for commercialization’ – who says that capitalism doesn’t stifle progress and innovation? In a Resource Based Economy these marvellous ideas would already be on their way to production.