PUMA: Brilliant Idea or Last Gasp?
By Bill Moore
It may be the brightest idea GM has had in a long, long time or the dumbest. Meet the newest concept in urban transportation, the electric Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility vehicle, or PUMA.
The troubled giant used the opening of the 2009 New York Auto Show to debut the collaborative concept based on Segway's self-balancing scooter technology.
Featured in the accompanying MP3 audio press briefing are Chris Borroni-Bird with GM and Phil LeMay from Segway discussing the rationale behind the self-balancing, two seater. Characterized by Dr. Larry Burns, GMs Vice President for R&D as being on opposite end of the mobility spectrum from the Hummer, the PUMA is designed exclusively for operation in urban environments where congestion is a daily fact of life and parking is at a premium.
In his briefing, Borroni-Bird, who developed the skateboard concept for the Autonomy in 2002, explained that the PUMA represents what he characterizes as the "new DNA" that will define what automotive mobility will be in the 21st century. The qualities of that "DNA" include electric-drive systems that are energized by batteries and fuel cells. The vehicle will be controlled electronically and "connected" to the larger mobility network that includes vehicle-to-vehicle awareness, as well as vehicle-to-network and vehicle-to-intersection communication, to highlight just a few possible combinations.
The current PUMA is a working, engineering proof-of-concept prototype and not what a future production version -- assuming the idea gains traction -- may look like. It would be easy to dismiss it as a anachronism and demonstration of just how "out-of-touch" General Motors is, but the rationale behind the concept is founded on very real global population trends where increasing numbers of people live in urban areas. More than 50 percent of humanity now lives in cities. The population density of the world's 20 largest cities ranges from about 3,000 people per square mile in Moscow an LA to over 25,000 in Jakarta and Karachi. In these cities, cars are the anachronism. Small, highly maneuverable, but safe vehicles with Borroni-Bird's 21st century DNA would be ideal platforms that offer the out-of-the-weather comfort of a car and the nimbleness of a bicycle or scooter.
Of course, the "wrinkle" in this vision is that Segway's technology is complex and expensive, and maybe this is where GM's manufacturing expertise could help. Since their inception, Segway Transporters have been little more than expensive technological curiosities. The PUMA could change that perception. A production version could come in a couple different models: a 300 kg vehicle with top speed of 25 mph and range of 25 miles, placing it squarely in the Neighborhood Electric Vehicle class that would be fully compliant with FMVSS 500. A 400 kg version could have a top speed of 35 mph and 35 mile range on a single charge, which could require it to meet full NHTSA crash safety standards, unless the vehicle is classified as a motorcycle. Power is supplied from Valence lithium ion batteries. Presumably, a GM-built version would use its own packs, developed from the cells used in the Volt.
For now, however, the question is moot because the PUMA is only a prototype and a not very stylish one at that. But Borroni-Bird indicated that GM and Segway plan to build a more sophisticated version that the media can test drive later this year. That EV will be somewhat wider and more refined than the open cabin of the current iteration. No pricing was discussed in the presentation, though Borroni-Bird stated it would cost one-quarter of what a conventional car would cost.
As to the larger question of why bother, if GM is to survive into the 21st century, it needs to think in terms of the 21st century and not the 20th, which is where a lot of critics and auto executives heads are still. Take congestion trends in New York City for example. In 1990, the traffic on major bridges and tunnels onto Manhattan were considered heavily congested seven out of every 18 hours in a day. In 2005, that had risen to nine hours. By 2030, projections are for "rush hour" in New York City to be 12 hours long.
General Motors estimates that at most, you can park 82 cars around the typical Manhattan block measuring 264 ft by 900 ft. The same block could park 380 PUMA-type electric vehicles. GM also analyzed the travel patterns of New Yorkers and discovered that 52% of all trips are under 20 minutes and that the average speed in the city less than 20 mph. Assuming these patterns are reflected in the other major cities of the world, a vehicle like the PUMA would make eminent sense.
The PUMA might be GM's last hurrah or it might be the first harbinger of a much-needed 21st century shift in mindset.
Use either of the two MP3 players at the top of the page to listen to the GM/Segway telephone press conference presentation. You can also download the file to your computer for transfer to your favorite MP3 player. Video of the PUMA in operation can be viewed on EV World's News Notes feature.