GM and Segway Collaborate on Networked "PUMA" Two-Seater

Every year, more people worldwide flock to cities, where congestion and pollution are quickly becoming intolerable. GM and Segway have teamed up to build what they believe is the solution: a two-seat, two-wheeled Segway with zero emissions that could create an entire new category of urban motorized transport.

PUMA, from GM and Segway 

Unveiled this afternoon in New York, the project has produced one prototype vehicle to date—the buggy you see here—but GM and Segway are promising pre-production versions by autumn. They expect the yet-unnamed urban transporter to get its finalized look-and-feel by early next year, meaning sales could start as soon as 2010—and while the executives at today's event were loath to name a ballpark price, GM's VP of Research and Development Larry Burns did point out that because the 700-pound vehicle will require 80% fewer materials than the average car, it stands to reason it could be about 80% cheaper than a car, too.

The vehicle works a lot like Segway's first model, but will be bulked up to support two people and some cargo (finalized models will be fully enclosed in a weather-sealed body.) The prototype you see here has a steering wheel that can articulate forward and back to toggle between driving forward, slowing, and driving in reverse; the final version, said Segway CEO Jim Norrod, will be a simpler steering apparatus with button controls for driving.

PUMA, from GM and Segway 

The prototype revealed today is being developed under an 18-month-old project that GM and Segway have dubbed PUMA which, of course, is an acronym—it stands for Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility (not to be confused with GM's 1973 Puma GTB). The specs are promising, if a little quixotic: 35 miles on a single charge, with a 35 mph top speed, two electric motors, a battery of lithium-ion cells for juice, and a no-crash approach to safety. GM plans to incorporate a cocktail of vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology—aided by trickle-down from adaptive cruise control, OnStar GPS, and their autonomous vehicle, Boss—to insure that the PUMA vehicle doesn't crash into cars, pedestrians, or other two-wheeled future pods. That means no airbags, no seatbelts, and no steel reinforcements to weigh the PUMA project down.

Burns and Norrod, of GM and Segway, are evangelists for the category, not just the PUMA vehicle itself. "It's about reinventing how we interact in cities and towns," said Burns. "We can transform cars with new DNA based on electric and digital controls."

The point of the project isn't just to get clean, efficient vehicles on the streets—though that's a perk—but to create what GM is calling a "mobility Internet" on which each vehicle is a node. Each node, Burns says, should be able to talk to other nodes using GPS, to avoid accidents and speed up traffic throughput. Burns says that the transponders that each PUMA vehicle could also be bought by regular-car drivers and pedestrians, so that they can be nodes, too—the transponders are only about the size of BlackBerrys and cost "significantly less than $100," he says.

PUMA, from GM and Segway

PUMA will benefit from a number of projects that GM has had in the oven for years: its all-electric Autonomy car platform, its self-navigation technology, and the ever-advancing GPS technology it uses for OnStar. But Burns was quick to point out that PUMA wasn't just another one of GM's never-to-market research projects: "The next 54 days are critically important for GM," he said of the grace period given to the company by the government. "Part of what we have to do is reinvent the car."

The drive-by-wire PUMA vehicle's price will be contingent mostly on electronics, according to Norrod, who says that with 60,000 Segways currently on the roads and counting, scaling up will make gyroscopic elements and drivetrain parts cheaper for the company every year. The brains of the unit—the dashboard—will be a simple docking station for smartphones, several of which will be compatible with the PUMA transporter (Segway hasn't said which.)

Still, roadblocks abound. Even if the hardware and electronics are getting cheaper, batteries never seem to be, and all the communications technology needed to make accident avoidance a reality—each transponder would need a 3G radio for mapping data, a GPS module, plus some kind of near-distance radio—will be complicated to implement safely and reliably. Then there's the issue of regulation: will the government be okay with a 35 mph vehicle without collision technology? Will cities let these things on their roads? New York City has outlawed the Segway Human Transporter, though Norrod says that his company has helped get pro-Segway legislation approved in 45 states.

PUMA, from GM and Segway

GM says they don't expect PUMA transporters to replace cars overnight; their plan is to try out the concept in what the call "foothold" sites: manageable Segway-friendly cities like Indianapolis, D.C. or Atlanta would make ideal testing grounds, as would college campuses or theme parks. Once discrete communities have proven they can handle a "mobility internet," then it will be on to bigger cities, and the PUMA folks hope, ubiquity.

For consumers, Burns says he expects there to be a "huge price ladder" on a range of PUMA vehicles, which he likens to stylistic statements as well as pragmatic vehicles (some demo footage of concept PUMAs showed futuristic pod designs resplendent with LED lighting and chassis that "bow" to let you enter the capsule doors.) Different models will likely have different sizes, cargo capacities, options, and all the up-sell bells and whistles of modern day cars.

Check back with FastCompany.com this fall for a first-hand account from the first PUMA test drive event.

Related: GM-Segway PUMA Live Demo [Photos]

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4 Comments

  • Jan Risbergs Jr.

    Hello FastCompany Censors,
    Thanks for deleting my comment earlier today.
    I know I did not attain the intellectual erudition of Comment #1, nor the cleverness of Comment #2. And I guess I didn't see the "hole" instead of the doughnut, like eagle eyed Mr. Positive in Comment #3. So I can see why you had to delete my superfluous comment.
    Thanks again.
    Since I had no spam link, did not give any outside URL - please let me know what "FastCompany Comment Policy" dictate I violated for you to remove my comment?
    I'm sure Seth Godin and Chris Anderson will love to hear about your new censorship policy.
    And I will send them this page, in PDF format, before you probably censor it again.
    I know I probably don't have the intellectual courage of someone who censors comments, as you do, but let me explain why my comments were actually relevant.
    For those who did not see the pre-censored comment - #4 of 4 - here it is:
    "In 2009, America had a problem. ...So it isn’t training and it isn’t education that makes you successful.
    These help, but the thing that really counts is that gift of the Gods—Creative Imagination!
    You have that gift. Use it!
    Make every thought, every fact, that comes into your mind pay you a profit.
    Make it work and produce for you.
    Think of things—not as they are but as they MIGHT be.
    Make them real, live and interesting.
    Don’t merely dream—but CREATE!
    Then use your imagination to make that CREATION of advantage to mankind—and, incidentally, yourself."
    Was it the fact that two arguably loser companies (sorry Dean Kamen & Kent Kresa) created a great product, "out-Tatoed" the Tato Nano at a time America needs all the innovation we can get - did this idea just "slip by you?"
    Pretty cool stuff, indeed.
    Yeah, I want one. Like...now, too.
    Did it ever occur to you that this joint venture between GM & Seqway could be a breakthrough?
    Far more important in terms of green technology than the Prius and its ilk.
    With far reaching market impact only dreamed of by the folks at Tesla Motors.
    So please, censor me again, okay?
    Demonstrate your intellectual courage, just one more time, okay?
    The next time you hear Frank Zappa’s "Who are the Brain Police?" – think of who he might be referring to.
    And… thanks again.
    You have a great magazine with excellent articles.
    Just one too many censors.

  • Josh Jeffryes

    How does accident avoidance protect you from a SUV smashing into you at 60mph? No amount of electronics is going to protect you from the other guy, as long as these are on city streets they need seatbelts, airbags, and steel reinforcement.