GM Unveils the P.U.M.A., and Possibly the Future of Urban Transportation

The Segway/GM brainchild, released today, comes with promises of sleeker models and a new wave of city driving

Is it the car of the future? The Segway of the future? An idea destined to go nowhere? Something in between? Today GM unveiled the PUMA, a two-wheeled city vehicle built in collaboration with Segway. PUMA stands for Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility, and the idea is to create a small, highly maneuverable mini-car ideal for congested cities where the traffic is slow and the parking is nonexistent.

P.U.M.A. Unveiled

The Project P.U.M.A. electric two-seat prototype vehicle with just two wheels is photographed by media after its unveiling Tuesday, April 7, 2009 in New York.Photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors

The (let's be honest here) rather unattractive prototype you see here is the first generation, to be followed by more polished prototypes in the fall and then Minority Report-looking pod vehicles next year. The PUMA seats two and runs on wheel motors that are powered by lithium-ion batteries. Thanks to torque steering, the PUMA can perform zero radius turns, which will sound fantastic to anyone who's ever had to pull a 17-point-turn in the parking lot of a Brooklyn gas station while surrounded by a swarm of honking taxis. (Not that PUMA drivers will be buying gas, of course.) It drives essentially like a Segway-- lean forward to go, lean back to slow down or stop, and so on. In park mode, a few small additional wheels drop down to plant the 700-pound vehicle firmly in place.

As Larry Burns, GM's vice president for strategic planning and R&D, emphasized yesterday in a press briefing, the goal of the PUMA isn't just to create a small, cheap, nimble vehicle for hellish big-city driving. It's to start playing with vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity, in which cheap, Blackberry-size transponders in the PUMA communicate with other cars, traffic signals, and even pedestrians, who could carry transponders in their backpacks or purses. In an ideal, transponder-rich environment, if someone carrying a transponder steps out in front of your vehicle (the word "car" somehow doesn't seem right for the PUMA), that device will communicate with your car and warn you both of an imminent collision, and even stop your vehicle for you.

This is all wildly ambitious, of course, and it might not make any business sense. But we like wild ideas, and we'll reserve judgment until the fall, when GM says it'll have Gen-2 prototypes ready for the press to drive.