Pods Could Unseat Cars for Urban Transport

By Warren Brown
Sunday, April 12, 2009


As I was stuck in traffic with the taxi meter running, the absurdity struck me. I am here to cover an automobile show in a city so stuffed with cars their numbers negate the reason for their existence.

They weren't going anywhere -- at least, not quickly. I boarded a cab on East 87th Street near Park Avenue. That was 10 minutes ago, and we had been sitting on Park Avenue ever since.

It's crazy. What am I doing? What are we doing?

Nearly 35 minutes and $20 later, at the billowy IAC Building -- a structure reminiscent of wind-blown sails on the open sea -- I put the question to William J. Mitchell, an urban design specialist who is a professor of architecture and media arts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mitchell's isn't the kind of interview normally sought at automotive exhibits. But he was here one day before news media previews of the 2009 New York International Auto Show to discuss something called PUMA, which translates to Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility.

PUMA is a joint project between Segway -- the New Hampshire company that makes those battery-powered, stand-up scooters used by postal delivery people and police on the beat -- and General Motors.

Mitchell is an adviser to the joint venture. He laughs when I relate to him my ordeal moving east to west by cab in Manhattan.

The success of the automobile, as we have come to know, love and loathe it, has been defeated by the success of the automobile, Mitchell said. Put another way, as the car and its many oversized, motorized siblings exist today, "it no longer fits comfortably in the urban environment," he said.

Segway and GM, working together over the past two years, have come up with what they think is a solution -- a two-seat, lithium-battery-powered, two-wheeled, 300-pound transportation pod capable of reaching 35 miles per hour and going 35 miles between charges.

There's something else: The PUMA pod would be equipped with transponders to help it behave much in the manner of pedestrians on crowded New York streets -- they seem to automatically sense one another's space and avoid intrusion or collision.

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