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GM and Segway Develop Rickshaw Prototype

Segway is trying to reinvent urban transportation–again.
April 7, 2009

GM and Segway have teamed up to develop a new prototype vehicle as part of their efforts to “reinvent the automobile,” the companies say, but it’s not clear that their new vehicle will do better than the original Segway personal transport.

Unlike the original self-balancing two-wheeler, the new vehicle will be enclosed and designed to transport two people seated side by side, rather than one person standing up. It will also be equipped with GPS, wireless technology, and sensors, which could eventually allow an onboard computer to take over some driving tasks.

The vehicle is designed for the city dweller, particularly those who don’t bother owning a car because of the twin frustrations of parking and traffic congestion. GM expects this market to grow as people continue to move from the country into cities, and these problems get worse. The vehicle won’t be allowed on the highways, since it will be limited to a top speed of 35 miles per hour. It will also have a range of about 35 miles. It’s supposed to cost one-fourth as much as a conventional car to operate. The companies haven’t disclosed the price of the vehicle, but they do have a catchy name: PUMA, for Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility.

Of course, it’s hard not to be skeptical. The original Segway transport was supposed to transform cities. Instead, many cities banned them, and it’s been relegated to niche applications. It’s given mall security guards a fun, and undoubtedly extremely useful, toy, for example. But will the redesign, and the added automation, make the PUMA more successful?

As with the first Segway, the question is, if you want a small vehicle that’s easy to park, why not just buy a bike or a scooter? If you don’t want to drive, and you live in the sort of city that this is targeted to, why not just take public transportation? Why risk a ride in an automated vehicle? The prototype, pictured in New York, looks pretty vulnerable next to the city’s taxis.

GM says that the enclosed design and side-by-side seating will make the vehicle more attractive than electric scooters, as will its automated driving feature, which presumably would be difficult to implement without the PUMA’s automatic balancing. But low-speed neighborhood electric vehicles, which are available now, or new highway-capable tiny electric vehicles, like Toyota’s FT-EV concept, can also be enclosed. GM says that the PUMA will be smaller and able to turn “on a dime,” so it should be easy to park. The computer automation is also easier, since a computer moderates the steering and acceleration already.

The PUMA. Credit: Segway

So GM’s proposition is that there is a market for a vehicle in between a scooter and a small electric vehicle, especially if it’s automated. But realistically, the automation will be a long time coming. Even if the technology works flawlessly, it seems unlikely that regulators will let such vehicles roam the cities, at least not unless there are dedicated lanes or overhead tracks, and those could be a tough sell. It also seems unlikely that consumers will trust such automation at first–again, unless the vehicles are running on tracks or on dedicated streets, like the Personal Rapid Transit systems being built at Heathrow Airport and in a new “green city” in Abu Dhabi.

If we leave out the vision of automation, is there enough left? It seems at the very least that GM has a tough marketing job ahead of it, as it essentially tries to create a new category of vehicle.

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