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Is GM-Segway's P.U.M.A. leap into future?

I think we’ve moved beyond the long car hood as phallic symbol, but still

I think we’ve moved beyond the long car hood as phallic symbol, but still ... If this is what future male teenagers might have to be cruising in, in their valiant but so often futile attempt to pick up girls ... Then I feel for you, little brothers.

I mean take a look at this thing — it looks like a two-seat, two-wheeled horse buggy, without the horse.

Known as Project P.U.M.A. (Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility), this odd vehicle was unveiled in New York last week, by an equally odd pairing — General Motors and Segway.

GM you know as the automaker set for some serious restructuring in the near future, and Segway you know as the company that pioneered the stand-up Segway, used extensively by crack security personnel — like Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Like that stand-up Segway, the sit-down P.U.M.A. uses a gyroscope, a computer, and an array of sensors and accelerometers, to determine how to power each wheel, to keep everything on the level. Yes, you need to place your complete trust in a computer, to keep your butt off the pavement, but that’s not even one of the major discussion points raised by this prototype: why is GM involved?

As discussed in a previous column, this initiative is consistent with GM’s vision of future personal transportation: Small, low-speed vehicles, electrically driven, connected to each other so everyone and everything is safe. Connectivity is also viewed as a critical element in alleviating congestion.

Will this become the next Model T? Who knows at this point, but the current Segway models, which have been around since 2004, might offer a clue.

While Segways didn’t revolutionize the world, as its makers once believed they would, they didn’t go away either. They found successful niches in security, policing, corporate, personal disability and tourism environments.

“The P.U.M.A. will eventually find its niches too,” said Jason Rizzuti of Segway of Ontario. He makes a good point: Our future transportation model may well be a fabric made of niche-like strands.

But is this thing even remotely legal? At this point the answer to that would be an emphatic “no.”

Carol Valianti, a vice-president with Segway Inc., told me that P.U.M.A. could be used on certain streets right now, with relatively little change to existing legislation — particularly on roads already restricted to speeds of 35 mph (56 km/h) or less.

Valianti noted, however, that the ideal scenario for P.U.M.A. would be a dedicated lane, something that would definitely require new legislation.

Part of the problem with getting things moving, is that there are a lot of local, state, provincial, and federal jurisdictions that have a say in where these, and other low-speed vehicles, can be used.

In the meantime, GM and Segway have lots of work to do, namely building a second-generation prototype with “full body design” by the spring of 2010, and then on to a full-blown production model.

In spite of my aesthetic reservations, I sincerely wish them good luck.

Segway online
• Check out www.segwaycanada.ca for the list of Canadian dealers and their Segway tour programs, and for links to cities and attractions around the world, which can be “toured” with a Segway.

– Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for more than 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.

 
 
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