One of the wonderful things about living in an unhinged time is that no one has any clue what's cool anymore. When we're all trying to keep our heads above water, any idea for making life better is worth a look. Case in point: the PUMA concept vehicle, recently revealed at the New York Auto Show. PUMA stands for "Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility Project," a fancy acronym for a geeky all-electric rickshaw jointly developed by GM and Segway – the most unlikely corporate partnership this side of Cheez-Whiz and Lipitor.
The PUMA is like a car, but a lot smaller; it's like a Segway, but a lot faster. Neither concept would've flown a few years ago, when Hummer drivers (and their apologists at GM) snarked at Al Gore-types in their Smart Cars and Priuses. Then Gas Crisis 2.0 hit, then Depression 2.0 hit, and now all ideas are on the table. Add to this a shift toward urban awareness in this country (thanks, in part, to our first urban-aware President), and a shift in global juice from the suburb-centric U.S. to the urban population centers of the wider world, and a project like the PUMA gets some fresh air. The emissions-free PUMA is perfect for smog-choked cities with bike- and moped-friendly infrastructures, upwardly mobile populations, and antiquated public transportation systems – in other words, any place but the United States, and especially the burgeoning megalopolises of India and China.
The PUMA, as currently envisioned, would communicate with other vehicles via the internet (or an internet-like system), allowing every PUMA-pilot to know where everyone else is, and presumably, not run into them. In parts of the world where bad driving and nasty accidents are frequent facts of life, this is not a Jetson-y luxury but a practical public-health move. "Project PUMA represents a unique solution to moving about and interacting in cities, where more than half of the world's people live," says Larry Burns, a GM vice president. In the U.S., even the most savvy cities would have to do an inordinate amount of infrastructure-adjustment to accommodate teeming hordes on hardened gyroscopic wheelchairs that can go 35 mph. They'd also be shooting their light-rail and bus systems in the collective foot, since PUMA funding would surely come out of the same pot. But elsewhere, making modest PUMA-specific changes may make sense – if GM and Segway can get in on the ground floor.
Yes, the PUMA looks like a Bugaboo stroller for adults. Yes, promotional videos of Segway employees driving a PUMA through the hipster streets of Park Slope or while wearing Formula 1-style racing helmets and gloves will give you a case of the giggles. But is the PUMA the goofiest thing on two wheels (plus four mini-wheels)? There's no way to tell, because it's so new – and because no one knows what's cool these days.