Anyone who has visited a major world city these days -- New York, London, Shanghai, Bangalore -- knows that something has to give with the number of cars.

London has already taken matters in its own hands by taxing commuters who insist on driving themselves into the city center. New York City has toyed with similar moves, though if the Port Authority keeps jacking up bridge and tunnel tolls into Manhattan, it could have the same effect.
There is a lot of experimentation and theorizing going on among automakers, engineers, designers, artists, city planners and sociologists to re-imagine mobility in urban centers. Some of it is pure public relations. Some of it is honest efforts to brainstorm better city living for the future -- like the 2011 Michelin Design Challenge, which asks car designers around the world to envision a car for the urban centers that will exist in 2046.

The latest effort is by German automaker BMW, through the BMW Guggenheim Lab.

Designed by Atelier Bow Wow, a Japanese modern architecture firm that specializes in urban design, is moveable. It's a public outdoor space that can function as a stage, community gathering space, or lecture hall. The seating area is protected by what Atelier Bow Wow calls a "traveling toolbox" -- a carbon fiber frame that can hold lights, sound systems and anything else that can be suspended in the air. The entire box is covered by a semi-transparent mesh awning.

Although the concept has little to do with driving or transportation, it shows where more forward-thinking automakers are focused: on finding flexible, changeable infrastructure to cope with dense city centers.

"We've been talking now for several years about a mega city vehicle," said Jim O'Donnell, president and CEO of BMW North America. For the Guggenheim project, BMW wanted something "specifically designed in recognition of the transport issues that are going to develop across the world."

BMW Guggenheim Lab sketch

BMW has already tried offering electric city cars. This summer, it should roll out the two-seater Mini E and an electrified version of the 1-series, called the ActiveE.

In 2013, BMW will roll out the i3, an electric vehicle that uses carbon fiber for the passenger compartment shell to reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency. There are also plans for an electrified sports car, called the i8. Eventually, BMW could have a lineup of electrified vehicles in the i-family.

The lightweight and compact construction throughout the i3 and innovative use of plastic reinforced with carbon fiber will allow some ease in navigating urban environments, and the motor will generate well over 100kW of electricity and achieve a lot of torque without straining the engine.

BMW is certainly not the only car company looking at designing for over-populated cities. The Audi Urban Future Initiative, for example, debuted recently in New York City at Openhouse Gallery. Similar to BMW's Guggenheim Lab, Audi's project seeks to promote visions of mobility, urban living, and the changing scope of transportation in the upcoming years. The exhibition, part of the New Museum's inaugural "Festival of Ideas for the New City," featured a 50-foot interactive model called "Project New York."

BMW's Guggenheim space will be located on 1st Street between First and Second avenues in an alleyway between two buildings. It will be there from Aug. 3 to Oct. 16.

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