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.
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.
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 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.
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]