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At the New York Auto Show, GM and Segway showed off a prototype vehicle meant to transform urban transportation: the Puma (Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility). The reception of this vehicle online hasn’t been very positive, and comments overheard at the auto show suggest that sentiments were similar there. (“There’s your bailout money,” said one disgruntled man, shaking his head. A woman said it looked like a baby carriage.)

But after taking a ride in the vehicle (see the video below), I’ve had a change of heart. I still think it’s an awkward-looking machine that will almost certainly fail as a mass-market vehicle, but the thing is very fun to ride around in and, I imagine, even more fun to drive. People with plenty of money lying around are bound to want to buy it if they get a test-drive; they’ll figure out what to use it for later.

Getting into the vehicle was something like climbing into an amusement-park ride. Strap yourself in with double shoulder belts, and a roll-bar arm snaps into place. When you board, the vehicle is tilted forward and resting on a pair of training wheels. But once you’re inside, it lifts itself up and balances on two wheels (the seat remains still but the surrounding cabin tilts back and forth). You get the vehicle to go forward by pushing on the steering wheel, causing the cabin to tilt, and you stop it by pushing against the front of the cabin with your legs, much as you lean forward on the original Segway to move forward and lean back to stop. In the prototype, both the driver and the passenger can stop the vehicle by pushing forward–something that will change in a production vehicle (I was advised to keep my legs relaxed and let the driver do the stopping).

The most distinctive part of the experience is the turning. The vehicle balances as it comes to a stop and then spins in place–that’s a level of maneuverability you won’t get in a scooter, which really could make the Puma a pleasure to drive around a congested city. The steering wheel isn’t mechanically connected to the wheels: it’s “drive-by-wire,” which is key for future plans to automate the vehicle. While I doubt people will trust the automation for driving around on busy roads, it could be a cool feature for parking garages. Just drop off the vehicle at the entrance, and let it park itself.

Still, the Puma seems unlikely to sell very widely, and it isn’t just the cost, which will probably be pretty high compared with a bicycle or a scooter.

The thing looks ungainly, and not just because it’s a prototype: the conceptual drawings for a finished product look even worse. The problem is that it perches unnaturally on its two wheels, and although seeming to defy gravity may sound cool, the result is just awkward looking (and the training wheels on the front don’t help).

At a panel at the auto show on the future of automobiles, journalists and automakers argued that a car is more than just a mobility device. When you arrive somewhere, it makes a statement about you. For that reason, I can’t imagine many people will want to make this their main vehicle. They might coast around in one in the privacy of an estate. Or take a spin in one at an amusement park. But I doubt many people will want to arrive at their destinations every day in a vehicle that people compare to a rickshaw and a baby carriage.

(Note: In the video, that’s not me getting into the Segway at the beginning.)

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Tagged: Energy, electric vehicle, GM, segway

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