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Cab of the Capitol

Design school team wins competition for Mexico City’s new taxi

by Brett Duesing

Look in any souvenir shop at Heathrow airport, and among the dangling key chains of Big Ben and palace guards, you’ll also find miniature, antique-looking black cars.  After 50 years, the stately hackney carriage, otherwise known as the London Cab, has become a sort of landmark on wheels — an internationally recognized symbol of the city’s identity.

It may be surprising to learn that London is the only major city to have a vehicle especially built as a taxi.  In all other places, a cab is not much more than a sedan with a paint job and a meter bolted to the dash.  But soon London won’t be the only city with a distinctive taxi of its own.  The government of Mexico City recently selected a winning design from 76 submissions.

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The Chapulín, meaning grasshopper, will undoubtedly become a new icon for visitors, and an attractive option for residents to get around town.  In fact, the new taxi forms the building block for a public transportation program of enormous magnitude. The city’s plan will eventually call for 120,000 taxis – six times the number of cabs now on the streets of London.

The concept of the Chapulín comes from a Mexico City transportation design school, Rigoletti Casa de Diseño (RCD).  The team consists of recent graduate Eduardo González Morón, instructor Arturo Millán Martinez, and Juan Antonio Islas Muñoz, RCD’s academic coordinator and also an alumnus.

RCD is starting to make winning design contests a bit of habit, with students and teachers claiming top spots in the Peugeot Design Contest over the last few years.  As for the taxi competition, the online call for entries gave designers nearly two months to submit a concept.

“Eduardo, Arturo, and myself found out about it about a month later,” says Islas.  “It wasn’t the best example to our students, but we began the project only around two weeks before the submission deadline.”

But two weeks was enough time to reconsider the most common notions of a taxi, evaluate Mexico City’s intense transportation needs, and put forth an answer in one compact, innovative, and environmentally responsible design.

Building a better taxi

“We wanted to put some more thought into the experience,” says Islas.  “We didn’t want to make just a cool-looking taxi, but one that would meet people’s needs.”

The experience of taking a cab is akin to staying at a hotel.  Better hotels strive to accommodate their guests, making them feel more secure and comfortable away from home.  In the case of most taxis across the world, it’s the other way around: passengers have to adjust to the vehicle.

“Almost no taxi in the world, except for the London Taxi Cab, was ever designed to be a taxi. They’re all domestic cars adapted for that function,” Islas explains. “Therefore, they get dirty quite quickly, the passengers’ luggage is never in their sight, and tall and handicapped people have problems loading and unloading.  Safety considerations for children or pregnant women don’t even figure in typical cabs. There’s also no security barrier between passenger and driver.”

These are just a few of the problems of use ignored in the basic car-to-cab conversion.  The experience of hailing a Chapulín is different, most notably when you step inside.

The Chapulín does away with the trunk entirely, leaving more floor space for an extra-tall cabin. Wide doors open up to a circular seating arrangement for four.  You sit with your luggage, which not only keeps it safe, but also allows for quicker pick-ups and drop-offs.  For handicapped patrons, a ramp extends to the curb for wheelchairs, which can be easily secured to a rail on the floor during the ride.  Passenger seats flip up to make more room for wheelchairs or larger pieces of luggage.  In addition, the taxi divides the driver and passenger areas for the safety of both.

The taxi proposal also employs the latest technological aids for navigation and communication.  “We give a GPS map display for both the driver and the passenger. Safety in Mexico City is crucial, so with the electronic maps, all taxi users will know where they are, and see their destination,” says Islas. “The GPS links into a telemetry system, through which the central dispatcher can track the taxis throughout the city.  The system shows where the cabs have been and how much in fares they have collected.”1

Transportation for an overloaded city

Islas and his team also drew from their own experience navigating Mexico City, the largest metropolis in the Western Hemisphere. The metro area of the capitol teems with nearly 20 million inhabitants, a greater population than Tokyo.  While Tokyo’s development has built upward into tight densities, Mexico City has spread outward through a long reliance on highways.

“Driving in Mexico City is like being a red blood cell trying to pass through a cholesterol-blocked artery,” Islas says.  “The number of cars is far greater than the capacity of roadways, and it’s increasing all the time.  The condition of those roads is many times less than optimal. People aren’t very respectful to traffic signs, or each other, for that matter.  Traffic makes people stressed out.  Congestion gives us a cocktail of polluted air and two-hour drives just to get home. It’s part of the reason why we chose to seat the passengers looking at each other, so they can socialize and forget about the long drives.”

Getting more cars off the road may be one of the positive effects of Mexico City taxi program, by providing an attractive alternative for residents who would normally own a vehicle.  But the mini-compact size of the vehicle frees up some space all by itself.

“We focused on keeping the car’s footprint as small as possible.  We made the most of the inner space while at the same time making a very small car to move through traffic and maneuver into parking.”

The Chapulín is only 3.65 meters long, shorter than a Ford Fiesta.  Because it is least a meter shorter than normal cabs, trading out all the current taxis for the new version would clear more than 12 kilometers of city street.
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Hybridization

Due to the huge number of cars, Mexico City ranks first in the world’s smoggiest cities.  The government has already adopted drastic measures to reduce congestion and pollution, including Hoy No Circula, where cars are grounded one day a week according to license number.

“We thought in addition to the contest’s requirements of good handling in difficult mobility zones and accommodation to passengers, that sustainability – both economically and environmentally — was of the utmost importance,” says Islas.

“Our proposal operates on a hybrid diesel-electric system, so it cuts out street-level exhaust.  What is particularly unique for this hybrid is that the diesel engine acts mainly as an electric generator for the batteries, rather than a traction aid.  This allows us to keep the mechanics very compact.  If you look at some of the renderings, it would appear we forgot about the engine, but no, it’s under the driver’s seat.”

Another aspect of the Chapulín helps the local economy.  “Our idea was to produce it as a kit-car.  It would be assembled by small certified workshops, which would generate employment. Another important consideration for the city was that it wanted to produce the cab – something we didn’t know when we made our submission — so when we already had 3D models for the powertrain, I guess they thought the design development was taken further than other proposals.”

Design Contest Rush

How did the RCD team prepare all these ideas for city officials in just two weeks?  The approach involved communication of the essential concepts – the styling and features – without getting too detailed.   Microsoft Word - Document2

“When we had a good conceptualization of what we wanted in terms of functionality, we jumped to Rhinoceros, a 3D surface modeler, and created the general shape of the interior and exterior. With Rhino, we could get great quality and precision on the exterior styling, and also model the mechanics, like the chassis and the powertrain.”

The team printed screenshots of the 3D model and sketched over them by hand, rather than creating full renderings.  This gave a loose expression of the interior features and saved time in the rush for submission.  After the award, the city now owns the rights to the design.  Islas expects that the city will hire them to do further design development as the project goes into engineering and production stages.

“Now we have gone back without time restrictions and made a more refined Rhino model and renderings with more details worked out. The Mexico City government can then add engineering specifications to the model as it begins production of the prototypes.”

Regardless if there is more work in store for the young designers, news of the accepted proposal itself was another kind of rush.  They are thrilled to win on such a large project, especially in their home city. “I think we won because our design was the one that best merged functionality and styling. The government in Mexico City wanted an icon for the city, and that is what we intended in the first place. Chapulín means grasshopper, an insect that relates to Mexico City’s identity in word Chapultepec.”

Like the hackney carriage, the Mexico City mini-cab has a distinctive design that has a potential to become a mobile mascot, a symbol of the city that could last for decades.  The government plans to make two or three prototypes of the Chapulín and perform test-runs.  After that, it intends to produce 12,000 cabs a year, until the goal of 120,000 taxis citywide is reached.

So very soon, not only will you find a comfortable ride to catch your flight at MEX, but once you get there, you also might find little “Chapulínes” dangling in the gift shops.

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# # # A version of this story appeared in the design magazine Develop3D.

About Rigoletti Case de Diseño

Rigoletti Casa de Diseño is a design center dedicated to promote industrial design with an accent on Latin American and Mexican styles.  RCD carries the only Bachelor Degree in Transportation Design in Latin America, in alliance with the IAAD (Instituto d’Arte Applicata e Design, Torino), and certified by EABHES (European Accreditation Board of Higher Education Schools). The main goal of RCD is to create internationally competitive designers. Past students have won internships to Alfa Romeo, Fiat, and Nissan.  Besides the academic mission, RCD also carries industrial and transportation design projects commissioned by clients. For more information please visit: www.rigolettidi.com.

About Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros provides the tools to accurately model your designs ready for rendering, animation, drafting, engineering, analysis, and manufacturing.  Rhino can create, edit, analyze, and translate NURBS curves, surfaces, and solids in Windows, without limits on complexity, degree, or size.  Rhino gives the accuracy needed to design, prototype, and engineer, analyze, and manufacture anything from an airplane to jewelry. To see the many diverse products designed with this affordable 3D tool, and to download a free evaluation version, please visit: www.rhino3D.com.

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