GM/Segway Joint Venture Is a Step in the Right Direction

General Motors and Segway have announced a joint venture to produce a small 2-passenger electric vehicle, based on Segway’s balancing technology. The prototype, named the P.U.M.A., (short for Personal Urban Mobility & Accessibility), includes some notable concepts, including networked communications technologies which [could] allow the vehicles to avoid collisions and participate in an on-demand transit network. Jim Norrod, chief executive of Segway, had this to say, “We’re excited about doing more with less, less emissions, less dependability on foreign oil and less space.” This appears to be a move by General Motors to focus on more environmentally-friendly vehicles and could potentially signal a greater change in GM’s strategy.

A few days ago, Joel Makower wrote about the American obsession with automobiles. This obsession has translated into the current rush to produce marketable electric cars. He laments that switching from gasoline to electricity merely clouds the fact that personally-owned vehicles are inherently wasteful and unsustainable. Makower suggests that what is needed is a shift to a greater focus on providing transportation solutions, not just building more cars. If the automakers could reinvent themselves as “transportation providers,” perhaps they could begin to focus on providing the most efficient solutions to transportation problems. This would most likely lead them to the realization that the solution involves doing more with less. The P.U.M.A. vehicle appears to be a step towards this type of better design and whole-systems thinking.

The vehicle is much smaller than a traditional car, even one as small as a SMART car, and this, by itself is a big plus. It also appears to be much easier to use than a motorcycle and wouldn’t require a special license. For a city-dweller, who may only need a car for those mid-length trips that are too long for a bicycle, this vehicle could easily replace a car, or be an alternative for someone who is reluctant to ride a motorcycle.

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But the most interesting feature of the P.U.M.A. concept is its proposed ability to communicate within a transportation network. By using GPS and transponder technology, the vehicle would be able to avoid collisions and could even drive itself. This would allow the vehicle to become part of an on-demand mass transit system. (You can get an idea of how this would work by watching the video.) Larry Burns, GM’s vice president of R&D and strategic planning, indicated that all of this could be accomplished with currently-available technology, “At this point, it’s merely a business decision.”

I’ve seen several concepts for this kind of on-demand personal transporter, usually known as Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT, but they usually involve far more infrastructure and dedicated, usually raised, tracks. The P.U.M.A. appears to require little more than a dedicated ground pathway, much like a bike lane. It seems as if this would be relatively easy to implement for a small city. According to Burns, the company is currently seeking a suitable partner to serve as a test case.

Some have criticized the P.U.MA. concept. The cars.com blog noted, “what do you do in cold weather, where do you park it, where do you charge it? …it’s unlikely there is a large market for the PUMA in the U.S.” WallyChamp.com surmized that it might promote laziness, “[yet] Another indication that Americans will become like the ones in Wall-E. ” Many criticisms have centered around the perceived safety of the vehicle. BusinessPundit.com called it “green, but useless” and said it “looks like it would crumple if a Hummer came within ten feet of it.” Money-cake.com had a similar reaction: “I would not feel comfortable driving the PUMA in Manhattan, NYC going 35 miles per hour. When I see such small vehicles on the road, I consider them coffins.” These critics may have overlooked the fact that the vehicle unveiled is just the chassis and that more safety improvements are planned, including coverings (see artist rendering, below).

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It is interesting to note that safety considerations are usually centered around being hit by a much larger vehicle, which is yet another symbol of our material-centric mindset: most people cannot picture a world where smaller vehicles are the norm. Not to mention the fact that in many cities, New York amd San Francisco included, bikes and motorcycles already successfully share the road with their larger brethren.

From an adoption standpoint, the design of the P.U.M.A. does not seem to carry the same baggage as the much-joked-about Segway Transporter: you drive it and sit in it like a car. It even looks familiar. When I first saw it, it took me a while before I realized that it had only 2 wheels.

Best of all: it has a really cool name. :-)

What do you think? Could this finally be the game-changing vehicle that Dr. Kamen promised us a few years ago? Is this something that General Motors could use to remake its image?

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Steve Puma is a technologist, sustainability consultant and strategist. He currently writes for bothTriplePundit and his personal blog,ThePumaBlog.com, about the intersection of sustainability, technology, innovation, and the future. Steve recently received his MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio School of Management in San Francisco, and holds a B.A. in Computer Science from Rutgers University.
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Steve Puma is a sustainable business consultant and writer.Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can learn more about Steve by reading his blog, or following his tweets.