Book review: Reinventing the automobile

We live in exciting times. The world is moving towards mass urbanisation, the countryside is being swallowed up by sprawling cities creating vast mega-cities – a recent UN report suggesting that over 70% of the world’s population will inhabit these dense urban landscapes by 2050.

Mobility, it seems, is still stuck in the era of the ‘horseless carriage’. The template is essentially that of the Ford Model T, which was good for the first 100 years of the automobile, but not necessarily a viable solution for our mobility needs now, and certainly not for the future.

A new book Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century argues that essentially we need to change the DNA of the car, as we know, by basing it on electric drive and wireless communication rather than on petroleum, the internal combustion engine and individual operation. The car, the authors argue, needs to become lighter and smarter by linking to other vehicles and a larger network, as in a ‘mobility internet’, to be able to collect and share data effectively.

Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century

The highly qualified authors of this easy-to-follow – albeit academic – 198-page book includes William Mitchell director of MIT’s Smart Cities research group and two of General Motor’s biggest brains Lawrence Burns and Christopher Borroni-Bird, director of advanced technology vehicle concepts.

The authors believe that personal mobility is a viable solution if we reinvent the car. They propose a number of vehicle concepts that are small, light and cheap enough to produce for mass use. These include the CityCar, a concept GM has developed with Smart Cities that adopts a standard four-wheel configuration with each wheel independently and digitally controlled to allow for a wider range of manoeuvres. These cars can execute sideways or crablike motions for parallel parking thanks to the wheel motors that provide various four-wheel steering capabilities.

The other proposition is the Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility (PUMA), a compact two-seater, front entry/exit cars with in-wheel motors. The rear wheels have been removed thanks to technology provided by the Segway Personal Transporter (PT), a vehicle that demonstrated the feasibility of maintaining balance electronically, in this case extended to a larger vehicle.

Laced with drawings explaining these concepts and their functionality step-by-step, and numerous graphs, Reinventing the Automobile is a thorough examination of these concepts and the network that needs to be implemented to support such sustainable urban mobility. It is a great research tool at a time when almost all car manufacturers are re-examining their role for the urban mobility in 2030 and beyond.

Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century
Authors: William J Mitchell, Christopher E Borroni-Bird and Lawrence D Burns
Published by MIT Press

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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