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  1. APRIL 6, 2009, 9:17 PM By JIM MOTAVALLI G.M.’s P.U.M.A. prototype in Manhattan. General Motors may be so short of cash that bankruptcy is among its dwindling options, but the company is still in the business of creating dreams. Its latest dream, the P.U.M.A. mobility pod, to be unveiled Tuesday in New York, is pretty far out — and as such, requires no big immediate investments. Indeed, Larry Burns, G.M.’s vice president for research and development and strategic planning, said the P.U.M.A. prototype cost “only one half of one percent of G.M’s typical engineering budget” for a year. Of course, the P.U.M.A. (for Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility) is not really a car, and it’s not really being introduced, except as a bit of blue-sky thinking about better ways to move around crowded urban areas than driving an automobile. Mr. Burns has used the phrase “reinvention of the automobile” before, in relation to fuel-cell vehicles like the G.M. Sequel. But the P.U.M.A., a joint project with Segway, the New Hampshire-based creator of self-balancing two-wheel scooters, is quite different. Think of a larger, two-passenger, sit-down version of the Segway PT, with two gyroscopically balanced wheels. The prototype has minimal bodywork, but podlike enclosures (which look like computer mice on wheels) are imagined for production. If it gets that far. If all of this conjures visions of a rickshaw, well, the prototype does somewhat resemble one. Mr. Burns imagines Singapore, which has rickshaws, as one possible early market. The P.U.M.A., which will be displayed at the New York International Auto Show (which opens to the public on Friday), is an electric vehicle powered by lithium-ion batteries. James D. Norrod, the president and chief executive of Segway, says it has a 35-mile range and 35 m.p.h. top speed. A three-hour charge costs, not surprisingly, 35 cents. It is, in essence, a neighborhood electric vehicle, or N.E.V., whose limited speed keeps it off highways (and, in most states, off roads with speed limits over 35). Mr. Burns said that six P.U.M.A.’s would fit in a standard parking space. A new N.E.V. — many are little more than glorified golf carts— is not going to reinvent the automobile. Despite the claims by proponents of such vehicles that they serve the driving needs of many millions, they have failed to make much of a dent in the car market. Ford abandoned its Neighbor N.E.V. when it sold the Norwegian company that made it, Think Nordic, at the end of 2002. Fewer than 6,000 Neighbors were sold in the United States that year. Chrysler still sells Global Electric Motorcars vehicles, which have had some success in gated communities. In a meeting Monday with editors and reporters at The New York Times, Mr. Burns pulled out his cellphone to make a point: Project P.U.M.A. vehicles would be designed to tap into the two-way communications made possible by G.M.’s OnStar technology, which has six million North American subscribers. The vision is expansive: using “vehicle to vehicle,” or V2V, communications, these “100 percent digital” devices would communicate with one another over a quarter-mile range to prevent collisions, eventually allowing what G.M. calls “autonomous driving and parking.” Mr. Burns imagines a hands-free urban driver ignoring dense city traffic to concentrate on sending text messages from a PDA clipped in to serve as a dashboard, while the mobile Internet pod moves toward its destination. “My daughter sleeps with her iPhone in her hand,” Mr. Burns said. “At this point, is using a cellphone the distraction, or has driving become the distraction?” There’s more: the pods would also be equipped to communicate with the smart grid of the future (as is the Aptera EV, another podlike electric vehicle that is due to be introduced in the fall), returning electricity to utilities during times of peak demand. That’s not V2V, it’s V2G — vehicle to grid. NYT_VideoPlayerStart({playerType:"article",videoId:"1194839263765",adxPagename:"wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/video"}); The Segway PT costs $5,000, so the more capable 600-pound P.U.M.A. would presumably be priced considerably higher, though Mr. Burns declined to speculate where the sweet spot might be. “This is a prototype, not a product,” said Mr. Norrod of Segway. “We have not made a decision to commercialize it.” Mr. Burns concluded his remarks by offering a glimmer of what his company could become if it managed to transform the urban roadscape. “We were the S.U.V. company, and we accept that,” he said. “We want to become the U.S.V. company — known for ultra-small vehicles.” Copyright 2009 The New York Times CompanyPrivacy PolicyNYTimes.com 620 Eighth Avenue New York, NY 10018 http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/06/gm-conjures-up-a-people-moving-pod/?pagemode=print
  2. As the Economy Worsens, Is There Money for Play? The economy was a factor in a recent merger involving Dale Earnhardt’s team, left. General Motors often runs Super Bowl commercials, center, and sponsors events like the baseball All-Star Game. By KATIE THOMAS Published: November 15, 2008 From the “Buick” emblazoned on Tiger Woods’s golf bag to the Chevrolet Camaro that Cole Hamels drove home last month for being named the most valuable player of the World Series, it is hard to be a sports fan without stumbling across some type of advertisement for General Motors. The company consistently ranks first among advertisers of televised sporting events, outspending other automakers by more than two to one. Billy Casper, left, received a car for winning the inaugural Buick Open in 1958. The tournament has been a PGA Tour staple. But as G.M. faces a financial crisis that has executives pleading with Congress for a federal bailout, many are wondering how far the company’s troubles will extend into the sports industry, which is already struggling to attract advertisers and sponsors in a weakened economy. “It’s one of those trickle-down effects that people don’t look at,” said David E. Cole, the chairman of the Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit research organization. “It has already hit hard.” G.M. has been scaling back its sports presence for at least a year. Cadillac, a G.M. brand, withdrew its sponsorship of the Masters golf tournament in January, and this summer, G.M. ended its relationships with two Nascar racetracks: Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee and New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The company is not renewing its longstanding partnership with the United States Olympic Committee when their contract expires at the end of this year. In one of the most dramatic examples of the company’s diminishing sports profile, G.M. said recently that it would not buy television commercials in this season’s Super Bowl broadcast. As G.M. argues its case before Congress, some firms whose contracts with the company are up for renewal are anxiously monitoring developments. “We’re actually in negotiations as we speak,” said Mitch Huberman, the senior vice president of Fox Sports Enterprises, which owns Pac-10 Properties and handles marketing for the Pacific-10 conference. Its contract with Pontiac, also produced by G.M., ends this year. “There are a lot of question marks in terms of where budgets are going,” Huberman said. “It’s kind of wait and see.” G.M., hit hard by plummeting consumer spending and tight credit markets, has reported that it is running out of cash and faces bankruptcy if it does not receive emergency federal assistance. In its third-quarter report, released earlier this month, the company said it planned to trim advertising by 20 percent and promotional spending by 25 percent. “We’re looking at literally everything,” said Peter Ternes, G.M.’s director of communications for sales, service and marketing. He said the cuts would be applied evenly but did not provide details about proposed changes to the company’s sports budget. Still, he said G.M. would not withdraw from sports entirely. “I think we’ll still be there,” he said. “It may not be at the volume that people have seen before, but we’ll still be a presence.” G.M.’s troubles come at a time when sports organizations are struggling to attract sponsors in a weak economy. The Nascar teams Chip Ganassi Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc., citing a difficult economic climate, announced a merger last week. On Friday, the Tour de Georgia, one of the nation’s premier cycling events, said it was canceling its 2009 race because it could not find a sponsor. Also on Friday, Nascar said it was suspending all testing at its tracks next season as a cost-cutting measure. Like beer and razors, automobiles have long been a staple of commercials during major sporting events, and for good reason, marketing experts said. At a time when digital video recorders and an array of cable channels have splintered television audiences, sporting events attract a large and passionate audience who often watch events as they happen. G.M. has historically taken advantage of this audience by investing heavily in television advertising. The company has been the top TV sports advertiser for at least the last five years, vastly outspending its nearest competitors. For example, in 2007, G.M. spent close to $578 million on TV sports advertising. The No. 2 advertiser, Toyota, spent less than half that, or nearly $287 million, according to Nielsen Media Research. Earlier this year, General Motors aired 11 advertisements during the Super Bowl, according to TNS Media Intelligence, a research firm. The decision not to buy a Super Bowl ad in 2009 may have more to do with public perception than with the company’s cash-strapped predicament. This year’s spots are each selling for $3 million, a fraction of G.M.’s total sports spending. However, if the company were to receive a federal bailout, airing a Super Bowl commercial could anger taxpayers who see the purchase as extravagant, said Kenneth L. Shropshire, the director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania. “Then people are saying, was that the right use of money for a one-day sporting event?” he said. Although executives for several television outlets would not speak publicly, several said their sales representatives had detected a shift in G.M.’s ad purchases — what some called a “flight to quality” — toward programs that have proved successful in the past. And although G.M. recently scaled back its presence on networks in prime time, one network television executive said sports remained a “stable destination.” There are signs that G.M. is continuing to invest in some sports. About a year ago, Chevrolet extended its sponsorship of Major League Baseball through the 2010 season. Ternes, the G.M. spokesman, pointed to plans by the company to invest heavily in next year’s N.C.A.A. men’s Final Four in Detroit, the nation’s automobile capital. On the surface, organizations with existing agreements with G.M. may consider a bailout a preferable outcome, because under a bankruptcy, the company could ask a court to void contracts. But because a federal bailout would also very likely lead to significant restructuring, some said G.M. could be compelled to try to renegotiate active contracts anyway. “With the bailout probably comes strings attached, and what those strings are, who knows?” said Greg Brown, the president of Learfield Sports, which handles marketing for 50 university athletic programs. Rather than seek to cancel existing contracts, several sports executives said G.M. and other companies were more likely to scale back promotions and focus on initiatives that led directly to a sale. “If you’re on the verge of bankruptcy, then you want to find out how to get the money now, rather than how do I get the 15-year-old to start thinking about the car they want to buy in the future?” Shropshire said. Sponsors may focus on promotions that draw fans to dealerships, like T-shirt giveaways or ticket sweepstakes, said Jim Andrews, the editorial director of IEG Sponsorship Report, a trade publication. Sponsorships, he added, can also create a “warm, fuzzy” perception that a company is supporting a customer’s favorite team. “That’s why you’re not seeing any of the automakers, even though they are in dire straits, saying we’ve got to pull out wholesale,” Andrews said. “Because I think they know there is a return on investment.” In some cases, foreign automakers have stepped in when American companies have pulled out. Chevrolet, for example, decided not to renew its sponsorship of the United States Ski Team last year, but Audi took its place. Honda recently replaced Dodge as the official automobile of the N.H.L. Although the troubles in Detroit played a role in that outcome, Honda fit better within the N.H.L.’s goal of becoming a more international brand, according to Keith Wachtel, the league’s senior vice president for corporate sales and marketing. But for now, marketers at a variety of sports organizations say they are in for some tough times. “In this environment, autos are going to be off across the board,” said Tim Finchem, the commissioner of the PGA Tour. Two of its tournaments are sponsored by Buick through 2010, and others are sponsored by Chrysler, BMW, Honda and Mercedes. “They’re doing, in varying degrees, terrible,” he said. “The U.S. automakers are really struggling. Now, who knows?” Finchem, however, said he was confident the companies would remain in business, which meant “they’re still going to be selling cars and, again, we have a good platform from which they can promote.”
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