For serious EV enthusiasts who want full size vehicles which go fast and far there’s nothing more irritating than a joke EV making the headlines. It’s important for car makers to get new and exciting electric vehicles out in the public eye, but only if the vehicles in question give EVs a good name. But to put it bluntly the GM/Segway PUMA prototype looked no more than a complete joke when it hit the news earlier this week.
Unveiled as an early prototype at the New York Autoshow, the little two-wheeled, self balancing personal transport vehicle can carry two people at up to 30 mph around town for up to 35 miles.
Maybe I’ve missed the point, but for an auto company to display such a rough and ready prototype at a big auto event such as the NY Autoshow smacks of desperation. It seems that GM would have done better to have kept this particular prototype secret until they had at least a more impressive looking model to show off. Don’t get me wrong. I like the idea. I’m quite partial to concept of the original Segway, although I’ve never ridden one. But the PUMA prototype, unlike the computer renderings you can see at the Project PUMA website, is most certainly no-where near public-ready. Looking like an over-sized self-balancing wheelchair rather than a viable mainstream personal transportation device, the NY autoshow prototype lacked proper doors, windows or body panels. Perhaps the decision was made to exhibit this vehicle in order to fully demonstrate the innovative and exciting way in which the PUMA actually keeps itself upright. Like it’s smaller, older cousin the Segway, the PUMA can turn on sixpence and follows a very quick and simple learning curve for anyone learning to drive it.
But this is really not the point. The idea behind the PUMA is fantastic. But the prototype itself should have been kept behind closed doors. Show it to potential investors, but don’t make it mainstream. I’m afraid, GM, that you’ve given yourself an epic FAIL for that one. Although technologically the PUMA is ground-breaking, conceptually Segway and GM aren’t doing anything new. Pod-like urban transportation has been predicted for many years by futurists and both Honda and Toyota have worked on conceptual prototypes in the past. GM/Segway seem to be the first company to really try to make the concept a reality. In all cases, these pod-like devices have all ran on either electricity or hydrogen. The former technology of course is the one I prefer, being a complete electric vehicle advocate. But time will tell if either make it to the market.
Let’s not also forget the legal implications of something so small being let on the road. At 30 mph the PUMA isn’t going to keep up with anything other than congested urban traffic and thanks to it’s diminutive size it could cause some concerns over crash-test safety. At the present time, sharing the road with other vehicles in the PUMA would be at best risky and at worse, down-right dangerous.
However, if the PUMA is given special dispensation to use pedestrian areas or perhaps to have their own specially designated lanes then it really could take off. Think about it. A future where you exit the local train station and pick up a city-provided PUMA to travel the last few blocks of your journey. It would beat a taxi any day. When you reach you destination you could simply drop the PUMA off in a specially designed fast charging station, ready for the next user. That would work. But unless that slightly Utopian future becomes a reality I’ll remain doubtful of the PUMA.
There’s some better two, three and four-wheel micro vehicles out there which could do just as well and cost just as little (both environmentally and economically) to run. Personally, vehicles like the City El or GEM EVs could be quite easily upgraded and developed to serve the purpose of the PUMA without half the technology and probably more reliability. Enough said. I would much rather see the money and effort be put into a medium range, highway capable commuter EV and fast recharge network, combined with improved city center transportation. Remind me in a few years when I start raving about the new personal transportation from GM/Segway (if it actually happens) and I’ll be sure to eat my own share of humble pie. But right now the only pie is the one that GM have in the sky.