It’s a little sad to see GM dying just the way they lived. Their latest death throe is called the “Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility,” an incredibly awkward name designed to yield the acronym P.U.M.A. The PUMA is a two-seater city car based on the Segway scooter, a vehicle which has done more to advance situation comedy than personal transportation. The oblivious magician Gob Bluth drove one on Arrested Development, not caring that he was chasing pedestrians off the sidewalk, and Niles Crane briefly tooled around in one in his brother’s apartment on Fraser.
With the effete Niles there was the added whammy of watching a man who simply can’t handle his technology, all very funny until you realize where it leads. Bush showed himself a techno-fool by falling off a Segway in 2003, shortly after he invaded Iraq.
But what’s even sadder about the PUMA is the way it is four years behind the much better execution of the same concept by Toyota Motor Corporation. In 2005 Toyota introduced a concept vehicle, the i-unit, that was beyond a car. Without airbags or seat belts, the futuristic machine instead uses electronic sensors to prevent collisions. It has plant-based plastic body panels and runs on electricity. Coolest of all, the wheels scissor apart to create a low-to-the-ground high-speed sports car, and scissor together to create a four-wheeled Segway with the driver positioned at eye level to pedestrians. It’s still a long way from George Jetson’s briefcase that turns into a car, but the design does mitigate one of the worst aspects of our current land cars, the vast amount of acreage needed to operate and store them. And rather than carrying around four extra seats all the time, the i-unit simply links itself electronically with additional i-units and pretty soon you have a family car with the kids all safely separated in their own individual pods. Then they can squabble all they want.
The i-unit looked good in its original sketches and like a futurist’s dream when it debuted at the Aichi Expo in 2005. Shortly thereafter, Toyota produced the i-swing with less of a Buck Rogers look but the ability to balance on two wheels. That’s why it’s a bit sad to see the PUMA appear four years later—doing everything the Toyota machine does, only much worse. Toyota stole its i-names from the hottest product of the 21st century (you could probably sell i-poop at a substantial markup); GM stole its name from an atheletic shoe. Toyota’s i-unit and i-swing look just like their artists’ elegant conceptions; GM and Segway have shown some prospective PUMAs that look like square clamshells cracked open, and others that look like typical sedans with everything before and after the front doors chopped off and two wheels bolted on. The actual PUMA resembles an oversized black garbage bin with both sides cut off, the top replaced with a black and yellow roll bar to remind you that you are, after all, taking your life in your hands. Add a windshield made from heavy Saran Wrap, set the whole shebang atop a Segway Scooter—and off you go.
Obviously, the PUMA is a lobbying tool, not a transportation product. The CEO of Segway seemed to want to make that clear, telling the New York Times, “This is a prototype, not a product. We have not made a decision to commercialize it.” But GM wants us all to believe in the PUMA (as it wants us to believe in the Chevy Volt). As GM’s VP for R&D put it, “We were the S.U.V. company, and we accept that.” But now, he says, “We want to become the U.S.V. company—known for ultra-small vehicles.”
Well, it’s too late. But the PUMA reveals something more hopeful than the demise of GM. Bubbling along beneath the mainstream conversation that pits tree-hugging urban elites against tea-bagging Hummer lovers there is a far more interesting conversation going on about the future of the automobile. It begins with the premise that cars are great. Whatever the problems of our current automobile monoculture—and they’re many and massive—individualized, high-speed transportation offers advantages of freedom and mobility that far outstrip those of mass transit, and the world has taken notice. In the US we already have more cars than licensed drivers, and soon the Indians, the Chinese, and the rest will follow suit: no more haves and have-nots. Or at least they will try. But the earth can’t possibly provide the resources to set everyone’s American-style sedan—or even their European econobox—in motion. That’s where the new thinking comes in.
The problem with the automobile runs deeper than miles per gallon. Even if we were to run all our vehicles on Fairy Dust, the automobile would still be linked to environmental degradation through its encouragement of destructive land-use patterns, it would still kill a million people a year, and chances are Washington would be beholden to the Fairy Dust companies and their high-priced Fairy lobbyists. The personal benefits of automobile ownership are far too great for us to consider abandoning them or keeping them to ourselves. That is why sensible people at Toyota are planning for our automotive future. It is a future in which vehicles take far less energy to produce and operate, occupy far less space, and are orders of magnitude safer. Envisioning this future, it is funny and sad, though perhaps also a bit hopeful, that America’s once world-leading automobile manufacturer is trying to entice buyers with a plastic garbage bin on wheels.