Tuesday, April 21, 2009

GM and Segway’s P.U.M.A: City Vehicle of the Future or Next-Gen Golf Cart?

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.
–Glenn Derene


  1. Great blog.

    I own both the Nuvi 660 and the 760, I'm writing this review for people having trouble deciding between the two as the price difference between the two products at the time of this review is about 100 dollars. I'm not going to focus on the feature differences, as that information can be easily obtained from specifications and online reviews. The 660 was a fine product back in 2005-2006, but the new 760 outdoes the 660 in practically everything, but there are some key usability fixes that make the 760 a better buy for the frequent user.


    1. 760 has much better fonts for street names than the 660. This may seem like a trivial update to some, but the 760's fonts greatly improve visibility. The 660 uses all capitalized text for street names on the map, and the font is incredibly cartoonish and unaligned, something like the scribbling Comic Sans font on the PC. The 760 uses your standard Verdana-like font with street names in capitalized and lowercase letters. The fonts on the 760 are smaller, cleaner and surprisingly much easier to read while driving. The maps end up looking professional, and not some cartoony children's video game.

    2. 760 has better rendering in 3D map mode than the 660. In the 660 when you are zoomed in under 3D map mode, the roads close to your car are displayed incredibly large, so large that they run into other roads, making the zoom function essentially kind of useless for dense roads. The 760 does not oversize your roads just because you zoomed in to view smaller roads in detail. This fix is very nice for those who drive in places with dense roadways, like New York City.

    3. No antenna on the 760 makes hooking up your Nuvi to the cradle one step easier. On the 660 you need to flip up the antenna before attaching the cradle. For people who park their cars on the street overnight, removing the GPS from the cradle for storage in the console or glove compartment is a must, and it's a lot easier hooking up the 760 to the cradle than the 660. It's hard to aim the 660 to its cradle in the dark as you have to align both the bottom edge and the charge port under the antenna. In the 760, the charge port is directly on the bottom of the unit; you can attach it to the cradle with one hand in the dark easily on the 760.

    4. It takes the 660 a good 45 seconds on average (sometimes longer than 2 minutes) after boot up to locate the satellite on a cold start. If you have firmware 2.6 installed on the 760, the satellite acquisition time after boot up is between 10-20 seconds. After the firmware update, my 760 also holds a stronger lock to the satellites than my 660, I can get satellite lock inside my house with the 760, whereas I can't get a lock with my 660 (adjusting the antenna does very little).

    5. The ability to set multiple ad hoc viapoints on the 760 means it's a lot easier creating alternate routes (very handy to avoid a specific interstate or a high traffic road). Whereas the 660 gives you just one viapoint.

    UPDATE: This GPS is currently on sale at Amazon… now is your chance to buy one, if you haven’t already. You can find the product page here:


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