In another concept on display, a lightweight passenger compartment is suspended from the car's exoskeleton. Decoupling the passenger cabin from the car body creates opportunities for more flexible designs. It also allows for new safety features. Today's auto bodies are built with crumple zones that compress during an accident and absorb the energy of the impact. In one proposed additional safety system, the cabin hangs from an internal ceiling beam and a layer of fluid separates it from the car's exoskeleton. In a collision, the swinging of the cabin and the fluid buffer would act as shock absorbers. Mitchell's group is patenting yet another safety feature: a robotic "wearable seat." In a crash, the edges of the seat wrap around passengers in a partial embrace, far exceeding the protective power of seatbelts and airbags.
The group is also trying to patent a new wheel design. In 1990 Osmos, a French company, introduced the hubless wheel, in which steering and braking components are integrated into the outer ring. The MIT team pushed the idea further, proposing to locate an electric motor and suspension within the empty wheel space. This reduces the vehicle's unsprung mass (the part of the car's mass not supported by the suspension), making it more stable. The motor wheel also enables tighter steering, leaves more space for people and bags, and lets the wheels attach to the body in new ways. "The car could have omnidirectional steering," Chin says. "You could pull up next to a parking space, turn your wheels 90 degrees, and drive in sideways."
From the renderings on display, it's clear that the Media Lab group drew inspiration from GM's Autonomy and Hy-wire. Those concept cars housed all the equipment needed to make the car run-fuel supply, fuel cells, electric motors-in a flat chassis (11 inches thick in the drivable
Hy-wire, just six inches thick in the more pie-in-the-sky Autonomy) onto which various auto bodies could be placed. In addition, the MIT students have suggested a possible automotive application of social-networking services such as Friendster. Looking for a parking space? A friend of a friend is leaving one. Such networking capacities, Mitchell says, will give the car "the collective intelligence of London's taxi drivers."
In midsummer, after the MIT exhibition closed, Mitchell took stock. He had never expected to end up in discussions with MIT's patent office. The motor wheel, in particular, had promise. It fit with a vision of our automotive future in which cars will be made of discrete elements (passenger cabin, suspension, exterior), any of which can be swapped out-and therefore customized. Drivers might someday be able to sport standard wheels for commuting and then pop on stylish ones for weekends. Mitchell realized that with more development, his students' concepts could become licensable technologies. He decided to give the team six more months to refine their engineering ideas. So for now, Gehry's work will have to wait. Some concept cars preview the future; others parody it. But at the big auto shows, amid the flashy lighting and fog machines, they all reflect the unbridled potential of emerging technologies. A soft car with motor wheels sculpted in Gehry's swooping curves that finds its own parking place? You won't be driving it in five years-and indeed, it's possible that, like the Firebird II, it will never be built. But there's no reason its modular structure and smart skins won't eventually appear in production vehicles, just as the LeSabre's automatic folding top is now standard. As pioneering computer scientist Alan Kay once said, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."
Jessie Scanlon writes for I.D., Slate and other publications.