General Motors recently unveiled the PUMA — it looks like a Segway on steroids — as an answer to urban traffic congestion. PUMA is an acronym for Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility.
GM developed the PUMA in collaboration with Segway Inc., the manufacturer of quirky two-wheelers, mostly used by airport and mall security cops, that otherwise have not exactly set the world on fire. The company has sold about 50,000 Segways.
The PUMA has a top speed of 35 mph. Larry Burns, GM’s director of research and development, envisions the creation of a transportation network, similar to the Internet, to provide the infrastructure that would keep PUMAs from running into other vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians. But it would require outfitting those potential collision victims with transponders to keep the PUMA from crashing into them.
The two-wheelers would have an electric motor in each hub powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Driving range provided by the battery pack would be about 35 miles. That’s fine for around town trips, but hardly enough capability to take you for a drive into the country.
GM is working with MIT on another small vehicle called the City Car. It’s a four-wheeler that also runs on batteries and recently won the $100,000 first prize in the Buckminister Fuller Challenge.
“The City Car is a path to sustainability,” says William J. Mitchell, professor of architecture at the MIT Media Lab. Research on the City Car was supported by GM and several other vehicle makers. But Mitchell says that he could even envision a consumer-electronics company building it some day. However, Mitchell thinks the earliest anyone might build the City Car is at least five years away.
Unlike the PUMA, the City Car will come fully equipped with conventional crash mitigating systems, such as airbags and other occupant-protection equipment. The MIT professor says the City Car will have fuel economy equivalent to an EPA rating exceeding 100 miles per gallon.
“The City Car is complementary to the PUMA,” says Christopher E. Borroni-Bird, GM’s director of advanced technology vehicles.