Posted in new / noteworthy, the world around us by hemmant jha on April 12, 2009

GM Segway P.U.M.A. / PUMA.

The subject of much conversation upon introduction, the GM Segway PUMA raised quite the stir. When I first heard about this, I assumed it was a car company+shoe company collaboration – a small, light and sporty automobile in designer colors and with small, springy seats. Puma does sell bicycles, so a small Puma sneaker inspired people mover is not entirely improbable.


Instead, this is a car company+extremely innovative personal technology company collaboration. PUMA stands for Personal Urban Mobility & Accessibility. It is not meant as a multi-mode, universal accessibility vehicle for wheelchair users [which would be very special indeed], but as a replacement for the standard car in an urban environment. Derived from the Segway personal transporter, the PUMA [currently experimental] shares many of its essential features – the 2 wheeled dynamically stabilized drive system, full battery power, the ability to communicate with the vehicle using a smart phone. Additionally, the PUMA is a two seater, with 35mph top speed and a 35 mile range – perfectly adequate for getting about in the city. 

Imagine a world where the urban environment was devoid of cars, and people got about on PUMAs as the sole means of transportation. In this scenario, the PUMA would be great – I would trade in my Prius for one. The city would be largely smoke free, clean and quiet – without the constant hum from engines, and the soot. Accidents with bicycles would be less catastrophic.

But the average city is not that city. New York, where this video was shot, is most definitely not. 

Imagine the PUMA in the current city environment – or a city environment even a few years from now, when SUVs will largely be extinct. Who will be able to use it and how? Where will it be used? It will probably not be used on pedestrian walkways, where people have died from collisions with bicycles. On bicycle paths? Unlikely – it is faster, wider and heavier than a bicycle and capable of traveling at the in-city speed limit for automobiles. Alternately, could it be driven alongside cars? Again, unlikely – since passengers will not survive an accident in the current iteration of the vehicle, which seems fragile [but again, it is experimental]. Arguably, the PUMA could be beefed up and made safer, at the expense of added weight and volume. This would do to the PUMA what safety regulations did to later generations of the Jaguar E- Type [the vehicle was beefed up to meet safety requirements, which necessitated a more powerful engine to offset the additional weight and to maintain performance. In turn, the larger engine added to the weight while simultaneously affecting the handling of the car – its main attribute besides its looks].

Without a realistic future in sight, it is quite amazing to see how well the PUMA has been received, and how much press it has garnered. I have yet to see a critical analysis of the PUMA in the mass media. What is particularly curious is the silence from the critics of the TATA Nano – the Nano was whipped as being both fragile and unsafe [and improbable as well, until it was released earlier this month]. The Nano is a small, simple, affordable car that has 4 wheels [so it does not need the highly sophisticated balancing system]. It seats 4 and gets about 70mpg in the city. 

Here’s a quick comparison of the PUMA and the Nano – the similarities are listed below :

PUMA and Nano meant for in-city use, not freeways

PUMA and Nano designed to be small

PUMA and Nano designed to be light

PUMA and Nano designed to be eco friendly [each in their own way]

The dissimilarities are :

1. Price – according to GM, the PUMA will likely cost about 1/3 as much as a car. Does this mean it will cost $4000, $8000, $12000? The Nano costs $2200.

2. The seating capacity – the PUMA seats 2 in its current iteration. There may be versions released later that seat more, but that would move this vehicle from the category of micro urban transporter to small family vehicle, which is what the Nano is.

3. Protection from the elements and from collisions. Of course, the future PUMA will be designed to address these issues – spiffy renderings aside, solutions remain to be seen. The Nano, while not as adventurous in its conception as the PUMA, is a real car that has been designed to function in the real world.

This direct comparison is clearly unfair – we’re comparing a proof of concept to a finished product. The PUMA is obviously the germ of a concept designed with the best intentions and incorporating very innovative technology, but to what end? It is being touted by GM not as a concept with many ‘aha’ moments, but possibly a very real way of getting about in the near future. This sounds unlikely, not least because it comes from a company with a track record of shelving innovative electric vehicles. There’s the added danger of trivializing the efforts of the other groups that are focused on electric vehicles, by showcasing improbable concepts as near-real. If one [major] project folds, it may tarnish the reputation of the movement as a whole.

Segway, led by Mr.Kamen, would be an excellent choice to create a personal mobility device for the future. GM would be a great manufacturing partner. But one cannot hope to create a real-world device without adequate regard for where it must live. Seen in isolation, there’s some excellent thinking that has gone into this experimental version. However, for it to remain much more than just the sum of its parts, I think the teams involved will have to focus differently, think broadly, holistically. A device created without due consideration for its operating environment and the needs of its users will remain no more than a novelty.

Rather than in a design or technology museum, I would like to see this product alive and well either in our current environment, or in one completely tailored for it – PUMAville? PUMAtowne? [terrible, I know – if you have a better name, post it in comments].



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