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

Steve Puma | Thursday April 9th, 2009 | 5 Comments

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.

PUMA_segway_1.jpg

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).

puma-sketch.jpg


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.
You can contact Steve through email or any of these social networks:
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  • steve

    The most difficult part is not the vehicle – many tiny vehicles that might be appropriate have been designed and most of them might be less expensive to build that something with artificial stability.
    Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands have worked out full infrastructures that mix low momentum traffic (bikes and people) with high momentum traffic (cars). It took two to three decades and was a non-trivial task. notes here
    also there is an issue of health – not many obese people in these countries.
    The Segway, bike, ebike, microcar or whatever (or all of the above) are the easy pieces. We are decades behind.

  • mcoc

    I like the intelligent, sensor-based navigation system, but I’m with Makower: let’s use advanced navigation on mass transit, not personal vehicles.
    Plus, I’d reaaallly rather not share the bike lane with this thing, even if it is supposedly intelligent enough not to hit me.
    I’m all for GM being creative and looking at different transport options, but I don’t think the PUMA is gonna fly (or roll). GM should think about making bikes with fancy navigation systems instead.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that we are way behind…which is why I like an idea like this one because it seems to build upon existing infrastructure, much like bus rapid transit (BRT) does.
    But…I also agree that the balancing technology is probably overkill. The only real reason for having 2 wheels instead of four is extra-high maneuverability (like maneuvering indoors) and the ability to go up stairs or cross uneven terrain. All these things are good for wheelchairs (Kamen’s specialty) but not so much for a vehicle designed to work on paved streets.
    On the other hand, I disagree that we are ever going to get completely off of vehicles designed to carry one-or two passengers instead of 50. As long as there is a demand for this kind of transportation, there will be vehicles sold which are made to fulfill that need. There will always be taxis, rickshaws, etc. The question is whether or not those modes of transportation pollute the environment, waste resources and take up space better used for human enrichment.
    The personal rapid transport idea, not necessarily, the one pictures here, could be a good replacement for cars in a city like New York, especially if it was coupled with heavy restrictions on cars, or even a ban. Because these “pods” can move in ad-hoc groups, almost like trains, they are a very flexible replacement for busse and a higher-capacity replacement for taxis. And they take up much less space than either.

  • Day Boss

    The right-wing wackos think this thing is a leftist plot to force people into tiny cars. It’s so prevalent that I almost think GM is putting this out there to take the piss. Kind of like the “people mover” they built in Detroit which is so useless it makes a mockery of public transit to the point where it scares people away.
    I’m not saying this segway thing is useless, it actualy might work in a dense city like new york, but in the sprawl of modern america, we have to walk carefully introducing things that might scare the natives.

  • gantrants

    This video: http://www.newsy.com/videos/puma_balances_function_and_future/ was the first time I ever even heard about the PUMA, and ever since I saw it I’ve been wondering who is going to buy one of these. I realize it is a prototype, and that it has function in cities such as New York, but with top speed at only 35 mph, this seems like it could be dangerous to have these things on the road with taxi drivers.