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Will the car of the future be foldable?

That’s the vision of a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. With backing from General Motors Corp., they are building a prototype of a lightweight electric vehicle that can be cheaply mass-produced, rented by commuters under a shared-use business model, and folded and stacked like grocery carts at subway stations or other central sites.

It’s called the City Car, and the key to the concept lies in the design of its wheels. Dreamers have been reinventing the wheel since the days of cave dwellers. But the work underway in “the Cube,” the Media Lab’s basement studio, may be the most ambitious remake yet.

The MIT team has transformed the lowly wheel into a sophisticated robotic drive system that will power the City Car. Embedded in each of its four wheels will be an electric motor, steering and braking mechanisms, suspension, and digital controls, all integrated into sealed units that can be snapped on and off.

And under the hood … well, there won’t be a hood on the City Car. Just an eggshell-shaped glass plate — part roof, part windshield ­— framing the modular cabin and stretching almost to the chassis.

“We’re eliminating the internal combustion engine,” said Media Lab research assistant Ryan C. Chin G, studio coordinator for City Cars. He said the four electric motors will enable a more efficient use of power by also dispensing with the transmission and driveline. “We’re removing as much hardware from the car as possible.”

In its place will be software that sets passenger preferences, changes the color of the cabin, controls the dashboard look and feel, and even directs drivers to parking spaces. “We think of the car as a big mobile computer with wheels on it,” Chin said. “This car should have a lot of computational power. It should know where the potholes are.”

And like a computer, the car will start with the push of a button. Instead of a steering wheel, it has handlebars, akin to a scooter or motorbike. But the ride will be more like a traditional car, though smoother and quieter, Chin said. The body of the car will be made of lightweight composite material such as Kevlar or carbon fiber.

Among the car’s other design departures are its folding chassis, enabling it to be stacked at designated parking areas across an urban area, where it could also be recharged. It also has a zero-turn radius, courtesy of a wheel configuration that provides omnidirectional motion. For the City Car, the traditional U-turn will be replaced by an O-turn, ideal for fitting into tight spaces.

The concept of the City Car was hatched by the Media Lab’s Smart Cities group, as part of a strategy for reducing carbon emissions. The team is being led by William J. Mitchell, professor of architecture and media arts and sciences.

Some of the Jetsonesque design of the City Car was inspired by the researchers’ work with pioneering architect Frank Gehry, a friend of Mitchell, and associates at Gehry’s architectural firm in Los Angeles. Gehry’s firm was initially a partner, but has since scaled back its involvement to an advisory role.

Media Lab researchers are planning to have their prototype completed by the end of the year.

“I think we’ll be driving it around the interior of this building,” Chin said, “and hopefully ask the MIT police to let us drive it around a parking lot.”

The three-year-old project is moving forward under the watchful eyes of liaisons from General Motors, a Media Lab sponsor, and MIT researchers hope the automaker will build a City Car concept vehicle in 2008 to demonstrate at auto shows.

GM devotes a portion of its $6 billion-plus annual research-and-development budget on university projects such as City Car to help its own researchers think out of the box, said Roy J. Mathieu, a GM staff researcher in Warren, Mich., who visits the Media Lab twice a semester and keeps in close contact with Chin’s team.

“They’re a rich cauldron of ideas we can use to develop concepts for our future cars,” Mathieu said. “They’re trying to imagine how the car will fit into the city in the future. Their ideas are interesting and intriguing, and we want to see if any of them fit into our technology road map.”

Rebecca Lindland, director of automotive research at Global Insight in Lexington, said City Car is one of a number of futuristic designs being developed by automakers and independent labs to demonstrate new technologies and concepts at a time of growing concern about global warming, traffic, and energy efficiency.

“The existing infrastructures can’t support the population growth that we’re seeing, so we’re going to have to find viable alternative vehicles like the one MIT is designing,” Lindland said.

Unless the cars can prove crashworthy and meet government speed and emissions standards, however, their applications may be limited to gated communities and entertainment parks, she said.

Chin said the design remains a work in progress, and if necessary the team will reinforce the car to make it crashworthy.

As the MIT researchers envision it, the City Car won’t replace private cars or mass transit systems but ease congestion by enabling shared transportation in cities.