Posted by: David Welch on April 7, 2009
What’s next? An electric unicycle? General Motors and Segway announced in New York today that they will pair up to develop an electric two-wheel car for urban driving. The car, called Project PUMA (stands for Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility) has two wheels side by side. It turns by stopping one wheel and spinning the other rather than actually turning the wheels. GM R&D Vice President Larry Burns says the car should be able to go 35 miles on a charge and top out at 35 miles per hour. A production version of the car would also be fully enclosed, unlike the prototype pictured above.
Burns thinks that the idea could reinvent urban transportation. City dwellers could use the car in special access lanes and avoid traffic jams, cut pollution and take up less space in parking lots. They would also avoid the hassle of a subway ride. Burns says the car can even avoid accidents. GM wants to equip the PUMA with transponders that can see other cars coming and avoid collisions. He has even thought of using GM’s satellite-based Onstar system to plan a route and avoid other cars without stopping. The idea, Burns says, is that if cars could be programmed to avoid a crash, automakers could eliminate a lot of heavy steel that now protects drivers. Lighter cars are more efficient.
Frankly, this seems like just the sort of pie-in-the-sky science project that will go nowhere. Automakers love to show off all kinds of electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells and talking automobiles that never see a showroom. Burns and Segway President and CEO Jim Norrod say that they would build a vehicle like the PUMA is a major city, college or municipality order up a batch of them. But they have no plans to build it and see if customers will start lining up.
On the other hand, at least GM is still forging ahead with some research and development work. Burns said his budget has been sharply cut now that GM is fighting to survive and borrowing from the federal government. But by partnering with Segway, the company can still look at some funky ideas while cutting its budget. Big projects like the Chevrolet Volt electric car remain intact, he said. Don’t look for PUMA to be built any time soon—if ever—but at least there is some advanced thinking going on.