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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.

 

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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.”

 

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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.

 

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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

 

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http://wheels.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/06/gm-conjures-up-a-people-moving-pod/?pagemode=print

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