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GM's Electric Scooter

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.

Reader Comments

Paul (Vw)

April 7, 2009 11:26 PM

>>> What’s next? An electric unicycle?

Aptly put.

In many, many ways, the today's Big3--er--Detroit3 make a Marx brothers' movie seem less than zany by comparison.

Danny L. McDaniel

April 8, 2009 2:30 PM

It is no wonder GM is in the financial mess it finds itself. GM is sinking millions into this going nowhere piece of nothing, If Americans want a "green", inexpensive two-wheeled vehicle they could buy bicycles. General Motors should tap into what the American public wants in a vehicle. After reading this article, the entire GM management team should be sacked.

Danny L. McDaniel
Lafayette, Indiana

Rick Wilson

April 10, 2009 10:39 AM

One ray of sunshine for General Motors this year has been the warm attention that is greeting P.U.M.A., its enclosed two-wheel, two-person version of the Segway, in partnership with that company.

Myself, I'm intrigued at the thought of climbing into a P.U.M.A. for the three-mile commute between my home near Wrigley Field and my classrooms downtown or in nearby Evanston. But others might be worried that a city bus or SUV could squash them without even feeling the bump. They might ask, What are the odds you’d make it to class?

Thankfully, Chicago and New York aren’t GM’s target markets. It’s imagining places like Singapore where vehicles are smaller and congestion is ten times thicker. P.U.M.A.s could be as practical there as rickshaws, bicycles, or skateboards.

Assuming the P.U.M.A. ever gets beyond prototype to commercial product, how would it be sold? Where would it be sold? It’s hard to think of a scenario where a typical U.S. car dealer, say in New Jersey, would want to expend much creative, new generation-style retailing energy on customers looking at a P.U.M.A.

Maybe GM's targeted dealers in Hong Kong or Cairo would have retailing models with customer experiences, inventories and profit models that are different enough from the standard American ones to make this work.

My question is really: How is GM thinking about the P.U.M.A. at the point of sale? In a long-ended previous era, strong, consumer-focused Dealerships made GM what it is as much as any best-selling Olds or Corvette. But they kept that model in a bizarre frozen state of suspended animation,. It's as if they believed that car buyers in 2009 are essentially the same as car buyers in 1950. While that's a clear sign of management senility for traditional auto products, it's sheer lunacy for new-age products aimed at new generations of buyers.

What should emerging-product and -market dealership look like? How can G.M. use P.U.M.A. to make that dealership more viable? Without more attention to the marketing channels question, new product idea after new product ideas will continue to languish and wither on the vine.

Remember my colleague Phil Kottler's Marketing 101: the FOUR P's....

Rick Wilson
Adjunct Professor of Marketing
Kellog School of Management
Northwestern University


April 15, 2009 6:32 AM

I enjoy reading your blog, and have had a link to it on the front page of my blog for some time.


May 4, 2009 1:21 PM

Enjoy reading your blog as well.

Ed Doell

February 3, 2010 6:27 PM

where can we buy the PUMA, excellent idea

Mobility Scooter

May 13, 2010 9:19 PM

I’m printing this out and highlighting a bunch of great points in this piece. It’s clear that the writer has a great grasp of the topic and describes the details at hand in easily readable terms. Cheers, and provide follow ups in the future. Personal Mobility Scooter

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