Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Future Is Now

One wonders if GM really did need a bailout?

US carmaker General Motors is joining with scooter maker Segway to make a new type of two-seat electric vehicle.

The prototype, which will be debuted in New York, is aimed at urban driving. GM aims to start making them by 2012.

The vehicle, named Puma, can go as far as 35 miles on a single charge. It will use lithium-ion batteries.

See guys? If you had started on this path thirty years ago, even using just one percent of your annual revenues, you could have been poised to corner the market on this kind of vehicle. Instead, you find yourself piggybacking on someone else's idea.
There had been rumours in the tech press for months that Segway was poised to announce a new product that would complement its futuristic  Segway Personal Transporter, which failed to capture much more than the imagination of people nationwide, likely because of its cost ($5,000) and its niche marketing ("Is it for sidewalks or streets?").
The P.U.M.A. (Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility) would essentially be a scooter with a top speed of 35 miles per hour, but far cleaner and far safer, with a nav system and a sensor array that would identify obstacles and steer around them, essentially driving itself.
It would also be far cheaper, about the third of the cost of a car (let's say $10,000), and ideal for uses on college campuses and for traffic enforcement agents (you know, meter maids?). It would eventually find its way to suburban homes as station cars, and even into the city as a day-to-day vehicle that can be crammed into tiny parking spaces.
The first and most obvious market for this vehicle is the Asian market, where cars haven't penetrated yet to the extent they have in the west and where cities the size of Chicago seem to pop up overnight. We'll see them here eventually now that the national attention has been focused on green technology and improving the national infrastructure.

There are few things as damaging to the infrastructure and environment as the internal combustion engine, with its thousands of mini-explosions for each trip it takes. This vehicle weighs 300 lbs. A car weighs 6 times that. You do the math.
The PUMA can be put into production immediately, as the technology is off-the-shelf for Segway. The only question would be how quickly can a dinosaur like GM ramp up its production lines to make this machine.
Aye, there's the rub and has been for Detroit for a long time. Flexibility has never been a key component in the US auto industry and to be sure, the dinosaurs who sit on the boards of directors haven't been strident in their advocacy of becoming more nimble, with the effective result being a dinosaur who can rollerskate a little.
That's sad for a nation that has always prided itself on invention.