P.U.M.A on the streets of New York yesterday
GM appears to have been vying for the prize of ‘World’s most hated company’ recently. Right now it might be losing that battle to AIG, but consolation is at hand – because there are clearly some bright people still left in the Renaissance Center. They appear to understand what the term ‘vision’ means, and are not treating the word ‘future’ simply as a threat. And they’ve teamed up with the guys behind the self-balancing human transporter, the Segway.
GM and Segway have been friendly for a while. They’ve worked together on the Opel Flextreme, a concept car shown at Frankfurt in 2007. It featured the Chevy Volt’s range-extended EV drivetrain, a euro-friendly sub-MPV body shell and (the collaboration bit) a pair of Segways that tucked away into the rear bumper and charged off the car's battery when they weren’t being used.
But no one really took any notice, and the Volt steals the headlines to this day. But while GM has been forced to can or put on hold many of its more ‘traditional’ new car programmes, another collaboration project with Segway has popped up today. A signal that GM thinks there’s a future beyond today's car? Take a deep breath now…
The press release for this project proclaims “GM and Segway Join Forces to Reinvent Urban Transportation”. In doing so, they’ve created ‘P.U.M.A’ - Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility. Utilising a similar gyroscopic, two wheel-based, self-balancing platform to today’s Segways, PUMA addresses some of the flies in the ointment of the Segway concept. PUMA can carry two people, and they can sit down (rather than one standing up on the Segway). There’s a roof (rather than just a stand and a stick), and it’ll do 35mph (bit speedier than 12.5, eh?). Quite how that’ll feel when you’re actually driving the thing is another matter, because speed lover that I am, 12.5mph on a Segway feels giddily quick at times.
President Obama’s team (among others) are focusing on keeping everyone moving in the same way as before but with different motive power (ie: shifting people into more economical, or electric cars). But as Joel Makower points out today, this is – to put it mildly – only a very small part of a very big problem. For once, GM’s read the script in advance (or more likely it talked to Segway, and probably MIT for good measure) and has seen that getting people using a 300lb electric PUMA rather than a 6000lb electric SUV to nip three miles down to the shops to grab papers and coffee is going to have some seriously big environmental and spatial advantages. Even Larry Burns (GM’s VP of research and development) who in 2002 suggested “only 12% of the world owns a car and we need to get that up to 40% ASAP" is now talking up the advantages of PUMA - big style. We wouldn’t say he’s done a complete volte-face yet, but it’s a start.
There’s not much point in conducting a design critique on the pictures of what are currently prototypes. However, a serious question and note of caution rides on whether GM and Segway see this as a product or a service. Right now that’s a moot point, but the fact that GM’s a car company and talks in the press release of this being “one-fourth to one-third the cost of what you pay to own and operate today’s automobile” suggests it’s thinking about it as product, and therefore in terms of sales. If that’s the only route to be taken with this idea, then our spirits are dampened, no make that drenched. Outside of the boardwalks of LA, San Diego and the police departments of Rome and Chicago, the Segway is still as rare as the lesser-spotted flying pig. As a product to buy it's a toy – rather than a mobility device to displace the car on small trips and change the world. If people are going to buy just one, expensive ‘mobility’ product, then we’d bet that thing looks like a car for a good number of years to come.
So instead, for PUMA to fulfill its true potential, we hope that GM and Segway are looking to push this as something to rent, something to share, something for city authorities, large coporations and institutions to implement on a wide scale – at a local level. Intrago Mobility – headed by Dan Struges, and who Makower talks about today, showcases a clear route to how this could be done. [Full disclosure, Dan is a long time friend and supporter of The Movement Design Bureau]. MIT’s smart cities car (concept), Paris’s Velib (bike rental) and Daimler’s Car2Go (car share) are other, obvious example models of where PUMA could – and should – go.
To reinvent the production form of urban movement is only half of the answer. To create a path by which citizens can get their head around, and easily, cheaply use a service-based mobility system is the critical bit. Still, GM and Segway should for now be congratulated. In one jump this puts them level with Toyota and its iSeries (iReal, iSwing) suite of concepts from recent years. Into the bargain, we bet they’ve caused much head scratching in Dearborn, Auburn Hill and on Capitol Hill this morning… something we encourage them to try and make happen much more frequently.
Follow up: We're due to chat with MDB friend and Segway's chief designer - Scott Waters - at some point in the next couple of weeks - keep checking back for an update.
Images: GM & Segway media sites under creative commons
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 7th April 2009