Segway, GM Collaborate on Next-Generation Personal Transport

I had to check the calendar when I heard about this to make sure it wasn’t still April Fool’s Day. It appears that Bedford, NH-based Segway and Detroit-based General Motors (NYSE: GM) are joining forces to develop a new electric-powered, two-seater vehicle that, like the famous Segway Personal Transporter (PT), balances on two wheels. The idea is to get people around town quickly and cleanly; like the PT, the new vehicle will be far more maneuverable than a conventional automobile, with a very small turning radius.

Segway and GM unveiled their collaboration in a press release this morning in advance of the New York International Auto Show, which begins April 10. The companies have already been testing their prototype vehicle, called Project P.U.M.A. (for Personal Urban Mobility & Accessibility), around the streets of New York (see photos and video below). The prototype, which resembles a pedicab without the cyclist in front, can travel at speeds up to 35 miles per hour.

The 300-pound vehicle runs on a lithium-ion battery that lasts up to 35 miles between rechargings, GM says. It tilts on its wheelbase, balancing on two wheels using “dynamic stabilization” technology similar to that developed for the Segway PT. (Technically the vehicle has six wheels, including two additional “landing-gear” wheels in front and two in back to catch it when it’s not moving.) The “keys” and dashboard controls for the P.U.M.A. apparently reside in an iPhone-like removable wireless device.

The Project P.U.M.A. concept vehicle“We are excited to be working together to demonstrate a dramatically different approach to urban mobility,” Segway CEO Jim Norrod said in the joint announcement. “The Project P.U.M.A. prototype vehicle embodies this through the combination of advanced technologies that Segway and GM bring to the table to complete the connection between the rider, environment, and others.”

Of course, Detroit has a decades-long history of announcing concept vehicles that never make it into production, and it is not at all clear from today’s announcement—which full of language about “capabilities” and “demonstrations”—that GM and Segway actually intend to manufacture the P.U.M.A. as a consumer product. A cynic might be excused for commenting that today’s news is an attempt by GM, which is in desperate need of a new image, to clothe itself in the aura of innovation that surrounds Segway, the company built by iconic New Hampshire inventor Dean Kamen (an Xconomist).

This is the second Detroit-New England collaboration announced in as many days. Yesterday Chrysler and A123Systems said that Chrysler will use A123’s nanophosphate lithium ion batteries in its new ENVI line of electric vehicles. But both the Segway and A123 projects are dependent on the continued survival of the two car companies, which are hemorrhaging cash and have been targeted for major restructuring and possible bankruptcy by the Obama Administration.

P.U.M.A. video:

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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