GM says the prototype in New York is operational, and expects a next-generation model to appear later this year. In early 2010, a complete concept could be unveiled. The rides look like golf carts, though executives say catchy design could be part of a production version if the project continues.
It's based on the premise that many cars are "over-engineered" for some driving situations. A Cadillac Escalade, for example, is unnecessary to drive a few blocks in Manhattan, where research says the average speed was 18.8 miles per hour and three-quarters of the population doesn't own a car, according to research cited by GM, which has been working with Segway for about 18 months on the project.
"It's not replacing vehicles as we know them -- it's complementing them in an urban environment," said Chris Borroni-Bird, director of advance technology vehicle concepts for GM.
The PUMAs would be a tradeoff in features. Two passengers would sit snugly side-by-side, but they also would be saving money. The PUMA's cost could be one-quarter to one-third that of owning a conventional midsize vehicle, GM says. Because they're small, ease of parking would also be a key selling point.
Though GM based much of its research on New York City, PUMA vehicles could launch overseas first. Domestically, the program could help bolster the automaker's green credentials.
"The (auto) Task Force is looking for us to show a vision of the future," Borroni-Bird said, "and I think this could be a part of it."