G.M.’s P.U.M.A. prototype in Manhattan.
The New York Times reported of a venture that makes sense: GM and Segway got together to develop prototypes of a vehicle that could revolutionise transport: the P.U.M.A. (short for the rather mouthful description Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility vehicle, a term that must have been invented by an engineer). First good thing: the Puma prototype cost “only one half of one percent of G.M’s typical engineering budget” for a year, which shows that transport modes development does not have to break the bank, especially at a time where GM actually is facing the fate of being broken. Secondly, the Puma would also not cost the Earth: it’s small (low material needs for production), it’s electric (no greenhouse gases) and it doesn’t need highways and extensive road networks. As a kind of self-service rikshaw, it’s ideal for use in hourly rental services like Zipcar, City Car Share or I-Go , which means it has the potential to become one of these paradigm shifts needed to transform our car society into a mobility one.
The Puma is a larger, two-passenger, sit-down version of the Segway PT, with two gyroscopically balanced wheels. The prototype has minimal bodywork (which really could stay that way), even though podlike enclosures are imagined for production (Jim Motavalli from the NYT pointed out that it looks a bit like computer mice on wheels). It is powered by lithium-ion batteries and has a 35-mile range and 35 m.p.h. top speed. A three-hour charge costs 35 cents. It is, in essence, a neighborhood electric vehicle, or NEV.
There could be more futuristic options available with the Puma. Larry Burns, G.M.’s vice president for research and development and strategic planning, said that Puma vehicles would be designed to tap into the two-way communications made possible by G.M.’s OnStar technology, which has six million North American subscribers. The vision is expansive: using “vehicle to vehicle,” or V2V, communications, these “100 percent digital” devices would communicate with one another over a quarter-mile range to prevent collisions, eventually allowing what G.M. calls “autonomous driving and parking.”
There’s more: the pods would also be equipped to communicate with the smart grid of the future (as is the Aptera EV, another podlike electric vehicle that is due to be introduced in Spring), returning electricity to utilities during times of peak demand. That’s not V2V, it’s V2G — vehicle to grid.
The problem though with NEVs is that the public isn’t ready for them, which of course is partly due to the car industry not being ready to move away from the good old car, and governments and the oil lobby not wanting to change their thinking about tranport. So it’s no surprise, that Ford abandoned its NEV when it sold the Norwegian company that made it, Think Nordic, at the end of 2002. Fewer than 6,000 vehicles were sold in the United States that year. Chrysler still sells Global Electric Motorcars vehicles, which have had some success but mainly in gated communities. Let’s hope the Puma will have a brighter future.
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