General Motors and Segway will today announce that the companies have teamed up to create a new prototype electric vehicle designed for urban transportation. Called project P.U.M.A (short for Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility) the two-wheeled vehicle uses the same dynamic stabilization technology found in the current Segway, but is large enough to carry two people and can reach decidedly non-Segwaylike speeds of up to 35 mph and run an hour on top speed on a single charge. The 300-lb. experimental vehicle, which will be demonstrated to the press this morning, has a semi-enclosed cockpit with two seats, but according to Larry Burns, GM vice-president of research and development, the idea is to eventually develop a closed-cockpit vehicle that can be driven through adverse weather conditions.
As the drivable concept shows, much of the engineering for the P.U.M.A. seems to be worked out. What remains hazy is what sort of licensing and safety regulations such a vehicle would be subject to. At 35 mph, it seems better suited to roads than sidewalks, but not fast enough for highway travel. Plus, in a conversation with journalists yesterday, Burns implied that the vehicle was not intended to meet the sort of collision standards that ordinary automobiles are subjected to—meaning no airbags or crumple zones. “Our aim is to do collision avoidance,” said Burns.
The collision avoidance tech is probably the most speculative aspect of the P.U.M.A. project. GM has long been working on vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology that should allow vehicles to communicate with each other using short-to-medium-range wireless transponders that use GPS and vehicle on-board telemetry data to avoid collisions. The idea is that if two vehicles can exchange speed, direction and position data, then one of them could make a decision to brake in an emergency situation to avoid an accident—even if that meant overriding the driver.
Since the Segway electric drive system is completely drive-by-wire, the P.U.M.A. could make effective emergency stops if it were communicating with other V2V-equipped vehicles. In fact, Burns claims that GM has the transponders for its system down to the size—and potentially the price—where such things could be worn by pedestrians, allowing the P.U.M.A. to automatically avoid collisions with people crossing the street. Somehow, the whole system will be linked with a personal wireless device (such as a phone), which is designed to act as the dashboard for the P.U.M.A. In current designs, a phone mounts in the steering wheel.
The vehicle-to-vehicle-to-pedestrian networking is further complicated by the fact that there is no currently agreed-upon wireless standard for such communications in the automotive industry yet—leading us to wonder just how blue-sky all of this stuff really is. Obviously, the vehicle is drivable and, theoretically, mass-produceable. GM officials were pretty tight-lipped about how much a P.U.M.A. would end up costing, saying only that it should come in at 1/3 to 1/4 the total operating cost of a normal car. Burns, anticipating cries of staged feel-good concept technology, given GM’s current financial situation, says “We’ve been working on this for 18 months. This isn’t something that we just pulled out when we got in trouble.”
Despite the fuzzy math of P.U.M.A.’s proposed V2V communications tech and the myriad other concerns we have just by looking at it (What about a cargo compartment for groceries? Any HVAC for hot or cold days? What’s to stop a couple of guys from just picking it up and walking away with it?), we’re actually cautiously impressed by the basic idea. It’s fast enough to be a real alternative to walking, it’s incredibly maneuverable and the world certainly needs affordable electric vehicle options that don’t feel like punchlines. What a shame it would be if the best ideas coming out of GM turn out to be nothing more than a last gasp.