We just took a spin inside the GM-Segway PUMA on 18th Street in Manhattan. It's not what we expected, in fact, we think we kind of like it.
When we first saw the PUMA last night we didn't really know what to make of it. It looks like a cross between a mobility scooter and a roller coaster car. But appearances can be deceiving, as this is just a rough chassis serving as an engineering prototype (we're told the final version will include a few more amenities like doors), but hopping in for a ride (we'll be able to drive it in the Fall) reveals anything but an unfinished product.
The first impression is of how small and simple the PUMA is. There's barely room for two full-sized adults to sit side-by-side within its roll cage and inside, under the rough plexi windshield there's only one control: the aircraft-like yoke.
Mounted on that yoke are two buttons; one to start things up and one to shut it down. Hit the one on the right and the cabin lifts up off the ground, balancing completely level. Move the yoke forward and the cabin rotates in front of the center of gravity, initiating forward motion. Push forward for more acceleration, pull backward to shift the cabin rearwards to decelerate or come to a stop. Twist the yoke left or right to steer. Do so at a standstill and one wheel will roll forward, the other backwards, spinning you in place. That's it, it couldn't be simpler. In fact, it works just like a Segway, albeit a giant one that goes 10 MPH faster and lets two people sit down out of the weather.
Riding along in complete silence, sliding fore and aft is a bit eerie. The seats aren't connected to the floor plan, meaning your feet slide out from under the seat when the cabin shifts foreword and vice versa in reverse. That feeling of connection to the movement helps orient passengers to what's going on beneath them.
The simplicity of the control system - immediately intuitive - hints at the intended use of the PUMA. You wouldn't need to be competent behind the wheel of a car to use one, it's more like operating a video game. Perfect for today's youth gone wild.
GM and Segway don't see the PUMA replacing all urban traffic, but rather providing a viable halfway house between public and private transportation within specific geographic areas. Think of a city like LA and its utter lack of usable public transportation. You could leave your house, hop in a community-share PUMA, drive it to the end of your street, join a through-lane train of similar devices headed in a similar direction, then pull off when appropriate to drive to your specific destination. The PUMA would handle the hard stuff — not hitting things, leaving you free to travel between A and B effortlessly. A 35-mile range, 35 MPH top speed and 35 cent charge would cover most local travel needs. As an alternative both to sitting in traffic or waiting for a bus, we can see exactly how the PUMA would enhance the urban transportation environment; encouraging people to forget the car for local trips. That leaves the roads freed up for what they should truly be used for — auto enthusiasts.