Executives from GM and Segway took to the streets today to demonstrate their collaborative electric vehicle on Manhattan's blustery west side. Before an audience of camera shutters and television reporters, the two-seat transporter—dubbed Project PUMA—zipped up and down West 18th street carrying two passengers belted in with racing-style harnesses. While the PUMA didn't hit its 35 mph top speed during the demonstration, it did flaunt its punchy acceleration, turn-in-place agility and almost eerie ability to "bow" much the way city buses do, giving its passengers easier access.
Segway CEO Jim Norrod was on hand to stress that the design we see here is but a sketelal prototype of the pre-production version that will be shown off later this year. Note the docking station for a smartphone on the steering wheel below. Your smartphone will act as the vehicle's dashboard, and also power what GM calls vehicle-to-vehicle social networking: your PUMA vehicle will network with others to prevent crashes and alert you of nearby friends.
"The new configuration you'll see this fall, which GM designed, will have space for luggage, cupholders, and things like that," he said. That version will also have weather-sealed doors, turn signals and a revised steering mechanism with push-button controls for forward and reverse. GM and Segway are promising 35 miles to a charge, with a charge time of 35 minutes and a top speed of 35 mph—or as they've dubbed them, the "three thirty-fives."
The question on every journalist's lips: what will it cost? Larry Burns, GM's VP of R&D (below, with the PUMA vehicle at his back), said it would be tough to estimate an MSRP because the project was still in its infancy.
Some in the crowd mumbled that it would need to cost less than $10,000 to sell well; others said less than $3,000. In a media event yesterday at GM's midtown Manhattan offices, Burns did say that because there will be about 80% fewer materials used in producing PUMA vehicles as compared to cars, the price might achieve discount parity, putting the price range around $6,000.
At the event today, Burns emphasized that regardless of the upfront cost of the vehicle, the real revolution would be the low expense of operation, when compared to a car. "It'll be one-quarter the cost per mile," he told journalists. "This is a vehicle that runs on electricity made from a wide range of sources, and because it's so small, it's efficient—it's approaching 150- or 200-gallon [tank] efficiency." Below, the PUMA prototype's battery pack and digital drivetrain.
The announcement of the PUMA project comes at a critical time for GM, which the White House has given 60 days—just 53 of them left—to formulate a viable plan to save itself. "I think this is what the [Obama] administration is looking for, in terms of vision," said Burns. "We're reinventing GM, and reinventing the automobile." Below, the PUMA's in-wheel electric motors.
The timing of this week's announcement—inside GM's 60-day grace period, and right before the New York Auto Show—was also auspicious because of its generous lead time. Norrod said he didn't know if PUMA vehicles would ship in 2010 or even 2011, or even if they'll be sold in GM dealerships, but he said he hoped that announcing PUMA early would give the nation's cities ample notice of the project's grand designs for changing urban transportation. Below, the PUMA in action. The auxiliary wheels on the back prevent tipping, while the pair on the front allow the vehicle to "bow" to a rest when in "park" mode.