- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

General Motors recently unveiled the PUMA — which looks like a Segway on steroids — as an answer to urban traffic congestion. PUMA is an acronym for Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility.

GM developed the PUMA in collaboration with Segway Inc., the manufacturer of quirky two-wheelers mostly used by airport and mall security cops that have not exactly set the world on fire. The company has sold about 50,000 Segways.

The PUMA has a top speed of 35 mph. Larry Burns, GM’s director of research and development, envisions the creation of a transportation network, similar to the Internet, to provide the infrastructure that would keep PUMAs from running into other vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians. But it would require outfitting those potential collision victims with transponders to keep the PUMA from crashing into them.

The two-wheelers would have an electric motor in each hub powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Driving range, provided by the battery pack, would be about 35 miles. That’s fine for around-town trips, but hardly enough capability to take you for a drive into the country.

GM is working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on another small vehicle called the City Car. It’s a four-wheeler that also runs on batteries and recently won the $100,000 first prize in the Buckminster Fuller Challenge.

“The City Car is a path to sustainability,” says William J. Mitchell, professor of architecture at the MIT Media Lab. Research on the City Car was supported by GM and several other vehicle makers, but Mr. Mitchell says that he could even envision a consumer-electronics company building it someday. However, he thinks the earliest anyone might build the City Car is at least five years away.

Unlike the PUMA, the City Car will come fully equipped with conventional crash mitigating systems, such as airbags and other occupant-protection equipment. The MIT professor says the City Car will have fuel economy equivalent to an EPA rating exceeding 100 miles per gallon.

“The City Car is complementary to the PUMA,” says Christopher E. Borroni-Bird, GM’s director of design and technology. He says both vehicles will be powered by electric motors in their wheels and have drive-by-wire systems. Also, they will both provide entry and exit through the front. One advantage the City Car has over the PUMA is its higher top speed and longer cruising range.

“The City Car is very viable for cities in the future,” Mr. Borroni-Bird says. “It will make commuting better, cheaper, faster and cleaner. It will also be inexpensive to build.”

MIT designed the City Car to fold, making it easier to stack at recharging stations that would be scattered around each city. The stations would also store small electric scooters for individuals who didn’t need the seating capacity of the tiny City Car. In addition, the stations would also have bicycles available for true non-polluting transportation.

Many cities around the world already ban cars and trucks from their central business areas, or as in London, charge hefty fees to motorists who drive into the heart of downtown areas. New York City has toyed for some time with restricting vehicles from a huge swath of Manhattan during prime business hours. In its first foray into restricting motor vehicles, New York over the Memorial Day weekend started banning traffic in Times Square. Instead of vehicles zipping through the legendary square, pedestrians can now saunter unobstructed by cruising taxis, buses or cars.

A new generation of tiny vehicles might be a solution for mega-cities that now choke on the fumes emanating from vehicles that clog the roadways. But an even better solution would be to improve mass transit systems and encourage people to walk more - and that would help improve the health of city residents.

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