GM sees an electric, 2-wheel future

The ailing U.S. automaker and personal transporter maker Segway unveil a two-seat vehicle targeted to city streets.

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By Catherine Clifford, staff writer

The new P.U.M.A. on the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y.
GM and Segway are showing off their device: A new way to get about town?

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NEW YORK ( -- So is this what President Obama had in mind?

General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) - under an end-of-May deadline to come up with a viable plan of operation - has joined forces with personal-transporter maker Segway to develop a two-seat, two-wheeled, electrically powered vehicle for use navigating city streets.

The prototype for the new vehicle - called Project P.U.M.A., which stands for Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility - was unveiled Tuesday in New York.

The two-person scooter-mobile travels up to 35 miles per hour and runs as much as 35 miles between recharges, the companies said. The vehicle runs on large-format lithium-ion batteries that the companies say produce no emissions, making it environmentally friendly.

The companies said Project P.U.M.A. also features real-time traffic and other connectivity technology similar to GM's OnStar system for automobiles. It also includes a system that prevents the scooter from bumping into other objects.

"Project P.U.M.A. represents a unique solution to moving about and interacting in cities, where more than half of the world's people live," said Larry Burns, GM vice president of research and development and strategic planning, in a written statement.

Segway is known for the two-wheel individual personal transporters on which a rider stands upright. The devices are often used by urban police departments and by the security forces of tourist attractions such as theme parks and zoos.

More than a toy: Peter Shankman, a New York City-based social media strategist, was one of the first to buy the original Segway in 2001, and he is optimistic about P.U.M.A.

"The [original] Segway was really more of a toy," said Shankman. "It was great, but it was a toy for people who were gadget freaks and airport cops. But this thing actually could be something. You can have two people, you have room to store bags, and it has a cover, so you could ride it in the rain."

Still, he noted, it's not big enough to fetch groceries or haul anything.

GM and Segway would not disclose the price of the new P.U.M.A., but said that the two-wheeler would cost between one-quarter and one-third what it costs to own and operate a traditional car.

"That is a lot of money for something that you can't carry groceries in," said Shankman, who paid $5,000 for his Segway in 2001.

In the nick of time: For General Motors, Project P.U.M.A. comes at a crucial time. The nation's biggest automaker, which has already received $13.4 billion in emergency federal loans, has been given until the end of next month to come up with a viable plan of operation.

Obama, in his statement last month on the status of GM and Chrysler, said U.S. companies "are investing in breakthrough technologies that hold the promise of new vehicles that will help America end its addiction to foreign oil."

"It is understandable that GM would do something like [P.U.M.A.] to get some favorable attention," said Gerald Meyers, professor of management at the University of Michigan Business School. "However, it is not a significant product offering. It is an interesting, good-feeling attempt to look like they are adventuresome and enlightened and modern."

But, he added, while "they will get some credit for that, it won't make one scintilla of difference in the marketplace or to any serious money manager."

Obama said that in order to get further aid from the government, GM must do such as things as pare unprofitable brands, clean up its balance sheet, and work with unions and creditors to come up with a way to do business in the future. The possibility of a bankruptcy filing looms, either as part of a restructuring or the failure to come up with a suitable plan.  To top of page

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