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The University's narrow commuter vehicle

A side view of the University's current prototype for a narrow commuter vehicle.

U researchers advance narrow commuter vehicle

By Rick Moore

Oct. 31, 2006

You don't have to be particularly astute to have noticed that traffic congestion in the United States--at least in urban areas--is stressful and problematic at best; maddening and dangerous at worst.

If you think things are going to get better any time soon, think again. (And you're likely to have more time to think in your car with each passing year.) Two-thirds of all car travel in urban areas takes place in congested conditions, and each year the increase in traffic exceeds the increase in capacity from new construction. In other words, rather than building our way out of congestion, we're slowly building a bigger mess.

In fact, by 2010 freeway congestion in urban areas of all sizes is expected to be double what it was in 1999. Think you hate your commute now? Wait till the next off-year election.

Auto industry researchers and transportation officials have been looking at fixes ranging from developing adaptive cruise control systems to devoting lanes of traffic for automated vehicle flow, where tightly packed "platoons" of vehicles would travel together at high speeds.

But another solution may be on its way courtesy of researchers at the University of Minnesota's Department of Mechanical Engineering. They've been advancing the notion of a one- or two-passenger vehicle--about the width of a motorcycle--that's comfortable and safe to operate in any weather, releases fewer emissions with higher gas mileage, and might dramatically increase traffic capacity.

The U researchers have developed a narrow commuter vehicle--a little more than three feet wide--that would take up less than half the space of a standard automobile and could potentially be driven two abreast in a normal lane of traffic.

"A lot of work is going on to address safety," Rajamani says. "But nobody's really looking at how to address traffic congestion, even though it's getting worse every year."

The research team--which includes Rajesh Rajamani, Lee Alexander, Patrick Starr, Max Donath and Samuel Kildane--has been developing and refining a prototype narrow vehicle for about five years. Their current edition is a three-wheeled model with a driver-protective roll cage that seats one.

While other prototype narrow vehicles have been developed over the years, and some universities and companies in Europe are actively working on the concept, the University of Minnesota is unique in its research in the United States. "We are the only folks doing this," says Rajamani.

"A lot of work is going on to address safety," he says, acknowledging the auto industry's efforts to address traffic fatalities. "But nobody's really looking at how to address traffic congestion, even though it's getting worse every year."

One of the biggest challenges for U researchers has been providing lateral stability to the prototype vehicle during turns, since the vehicle is fairly tall relative to its width. When a driver steers to the left, for example, a normal vehicle would naturally lean to the right.

At a recent presentation on campus, Rajamani explained the engineering behind his new tilt-control system, controlled by a computer, which "helps the driver keep the vehicle balanced at all times," he says. When going around a curve, the steering system "figures our how much to tilt [into the turn], and it tilts automatically."

The narrow commuter vehicle in action

Watch a video clip of the University of Minnesota's narrow commuter vehicle on a test drive.

Many other challenges remain for the U researchers--chief among them safety and "the perception of safety," according to Rajamani. "People perceive anything small to be unsafe," he says.

The researchers' next step is to gain the additional funding needed to enhance safety features such as incorporating front and side air bags and developing collision-avoidance features. The research to date has been supported by the U's Intelligent Transportation Systems Institute and the National Science Foundation.

Down the road, narrow commuter vehicles may someday provide a fun and energy-efficient alternative to spending hours stuck in gridlock.

"That's been the primary motivation for us to work on it--as a traffic solution," Rajamani says. "It makes sense. If you're commuting to work and traveling alone, you [would] use less space on the highway and less fuel, and that's the right direction to go, I think."