GM, Segway Unveil P.U.M.A. as Future of Urban Transportation
Is this the car of the future? (Image via Gather.com)

Is this the car of the future? (Image via Gather.com)

For more photos, check out this photo gallery by Autoblog.

Last week, General Motors and Segway unveiled the much-hyped Project P.U.M.A, which stands for “Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility,” an electric two-wheeler prototype vehicle that is supposed to transform the way city-dwellers move around. The 300-pound, lithium-battery-powered, pod-shaped vehicle can go up to 35 miles per hour in a 35-mile range with a 35 cent charge.

The New York Post says it is “a vision of how to combat difficult future urban planning and development as urbanization increases and green technologies becomes more important.” (See a video of PUMA in action, riding around New York City, here.)

Among supporters of the innovative concept car comes this list of potential benefits:

  • “zero emissions” transportation, like bicycling or walking
  • small and maneuverable, suitable for city streets
  • fun to ride
  • “vehicle-to-vehicle communication” using GPS and transponder technology that’s supposed to promote “social networking” and ultimately prevent collisions between drivers
  • “digital dashboard” to connect information about your ride to other handheld devices via a wireless connection

But aren’t these praises similar to what everyone said about the Segway Transporter–you know, that self-balancing scooter that looks like something out of the Jetsons? (Watch this video of inventor Dean Kamen talking about how Segway technology is the answer to “the last mile problem,” or the the distance you have to walk between your subway stop and your actual destination.) When was the last time you saw anyone normal riding one of those around town (besides tourists and cops and postal delivery people)?

The Financial Times quips that the PUMA is “not such a cool cat”:

There is a near-heroic implausibility to the project. A once-proud Detroit giant now on its knees has joined forces with a group famed for a much-ridiculed scooter to produce a two-wheeled, two-seat electric car. The vehicle might as well bear a sign saying “Mock me”.

Bloggers have chimed in with similar teases. The Daily Score calls it a “Dorkmobile” (although, he also says he loves it.) Business Pundit says it looks like a “genetically modified wheelchair” that is “green, but useless.” Money Cake points out safety hazards, comparing the small car to a coffin. And UsableMarkets says the “utterly useless” PUMA looks like “something designed for the city by people who don’t actually live in cities” (for example, too small to load groceries, too big to ride on the sidewalk.)

Other criticisms abound: “a rickshaw without all the charm“; “overpriced and impractical“; “transportation for lazy people.”

Indeed, the biggest criticism from a sustainable urban transportation perspective is what WorldChanging says: “we know the main problem with vehicles won’t be solved simply by building smaller vehicles, gasoline-powered or otherwise.” The problem is less about cars and more about how we build our cities, as Alex Steffen describes in his essay, “My Other Car is a Bright Green City“:

There is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive. The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.

In the meantime, as cities wait for their own design revolution, GM and Segway are working on creating a more sophisticated version of the PUMA, to be released for test driving later this year. Hopefully, the makeover will smooth out the bulky exterior, weather-proof the passengers, and replace that ugly yellow hazard tape aesthetic.

Here’s what the car of the future might look like:

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  • Dario Hidalgo

    Quite an interesting post. I percieve that vehicles like this will be part of the future of transport, but I feel unconfortable with claims that they are the “sole solution”. The future will be brighter and cooler if we have smaller and efficient vehicles, AND we built and re-built our cities so we need less indiviudal motor vehicle trips. We wont have problems of the last mile solution, if most of the trips we need are less than a mile long (we can walk, bike, hop on a bus)
    I also feel unconfortable with the zero-emission claims: if we keep an electric grid that is heavily dependable on carbon and other fosil fuels, it is not true that emissions are zero.