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“We asked younger people about texting while driving; they told us the driving distracted them from texting.”
Larry Burns, head of R&D for General Motors, is explaining to a roomful of intrigued but perplexed reporters why GM—until recently the world’s largest automaker—has partnered with Segway on the odd vehicle unveiled here in New York today.
The result of their 18-month research project is so new it doesn’t even have body panels. It’s a two-wheel, two-seat electric vehicle that uses gyroscopic stabilization to hold itself upright, both when stopped and in motion. Marked with checkerboard tape and “EXPERIMENTAL” logos, it wowed reporters by whirring silently into the auditorium and rotating in place.
Burns’s anecdote alludes to views among some urban youth that driving is tedious and—especially in Japan—cars are antisocial. Their need for mobility remains, of course; humans are wired to congregate and interact. It’s just that future urban dwellers may have neither the space to own motor vehicles nor the patience to deal with them.
With up to 80 percent of the world’s humans projected to live in cities within a few decades, their mobility needs will rank high for automakers. Academics and theorists have long predicted that new modes of urban transport would emerge to meet those needs. Every other year, the Tokyo Motor Show has a handful of oddball one- and two-person “transport modules”; indeed, Toyota showed its three-wheeled i-Real personal mobility vehicle at the 2007 Tokyo show.
GM was never interested in a one-person, stand-up vehicle like the Segway PT device, said Burns. But when then-CEO Rick Wagoner brought Burns and his team together with Segway, a joint group began to brainstorm about vehicles that could draw on both companies’ expertise.
The GM-Segway vehicle—officially called Project PUMA, for Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility—is the first in the world to combine electric drive with both vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications and autonomous driving and parking.
From Segway come the wheel motors, the lithium ion battery pack, and the dynamic stabilization that allows the vehicle to stand upright on its two wheels. From General Motors comes a decade of research into V2V communication, plus its experience in creating “Boss,” the autonomous vehicle built at Carnegie Mellon University that won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge for self-navigating vehicles. GM also contributes development work on functions like the “Virtual Valet,” the ability for a car to find a parking space, and wait to be alerted to travel to wherever its user is.
Today’s concept vehicle had neither autonomy nor V2V ability, but the team expects to offer test-drives to reporters this fall, with fully realized styling concepts by early next year. A benefit of working with a small, entrepreneurial company like Segway, Burns admitted, was its culture of group experimentation and rapid prototyping. And with recent cuts slashing every GM expense, the R&D group is strongly encouraged to partner with companies that have needed expertise.
Seeking A Host City—Globally
What does it all mean in practical terms? After all, GM is great at producing concept cars and limited tests; Burns cited both the 2002 Autonomy concept and the earlier EV1. But can a vehicle like Project PUMA actually have a meaningful impact on the ecological footprint of urban vehicles?
The next step will be for a municipality or area to host a large-scale test and install the required infrastructure—dedicated roadways for the new vehicles, and a forest of infrastructure that broadcasts its presence electronically. Every stop sign, every intersection, every merge must continually let the car know it’s there. Every other vehicle in the system also has to broadcast its position and direction of travel.
On the plus side, this allows cars to “know” where congestion exists, and plan a route to avoid or minimize it. On the minus side, it’s costly to set up and precludes mixed traffic—we won’t see Pumas intermingled with regular road vehicles, for instance. GM is now seeking volunteer locations, preferably with their own funding to subsidize costs of the test.
Asked about candidates, GM’s Chris Brown suggested a few examples: the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan, or Stanford University, perhaps Disneyland. But his list quickly ranged outside the US, from Tokyo or Abu Dhabi to Singapore, notorious for its rigid controls and technology-based pricing to ensure that vehicular traffic always flows smoothly.
A Vehicle You Wear, Not Drive
So this isn’t necessarily about the US, which has just a few cities dense enough to justify a separate road system to raise the throughput of people-miles traveled. The urban-suburban-exurban sprawl of Dallas or Atlanta may never make sense for Project Puma, but the dense infrastructure of Manhattan, London, Tokyo, or Buenos Aires could. Then there’s China, whose government intends both to guide its automotive industry and become the world’s leading electric-car producer. Think Beijing, Shanghai, or half a dozen other megalopolises-in-the-making.
Burns proposed that the company thinks of the Project Puma autonomous vehicles like fashion—“something you wear, not something you drive”—and used the analogy of parking them “in your closet.” Indeed, the video simulations showed design alternatives that variously resembled an egg, a sort of iPod-with-wheels, an insect, even the pistol grip of a video game. They used unfolding clamshells, insect wings, hatches, and bubbles to offer access through the front of a vehicle that parked nose-in at the curb.
In a future connected world, where a vehicle’s intelligence about its driver comes from an iPod docked into it, the choice of vehicle style—like putting on a suit, or perhaps a carapace—may signify even more about who you are than your car does today. Already, says Burns, tomorrow’s market feels that communicating with others is a better use of time than stop-and-go driving.
GM Should Be “Extraordinarily Paranoid”
Asked by a tenacious Fox News reporter whether this car would “fix” GM, Burns demurred. But he was clear that at a time of transformational change—here, electric-drive vehicles that are connected to each other and the infrastructure—GM needed to be “extraordinarily paranoid” to avoid getting leapfrogged by newer, younger, more inventive entrants. And he noted that his own list of new vehicle companies now has 20 entries.
Bottom line: You won’t have access to a Project Puma vehicle in the next few years. But if you visit Amsterdam or Bangkok 10 years hence, you may find residents take for granted the ability to dial a destination into their handset, and have a Puma-like pod appear outside to take them there. Welcome to the brave new, low-carbon, electric-drive world?