Sunday, April 12, 2009


A new two-seater vehicle presented by General Motors has been getting quite a lot of press over here (see this slideshow in Die Zeit). The PUMA, as it is called, seems to be a kind of enlarged Segway.

When the Segway came out a few years ago, I remember thinking that such vehicles were the last thing that obese America needs. The thing hardly replaces cars -- if anything, it replaces bicycles.

The prototype PUMA reportedly gets "up to 35 mph, with a range of 35 miles". In other words, it, too, will not be competing with automobiles, but rather with bicycles. And although it has two seats, judging from this picture it looks like the driver will be regularly elbowing the passenger in the stomach during basic steering.

I wonder why no one is thinking about producing a true battery-assisted, enclosed (to protect you from the elements) bicycle. Well, actually, people are. Just a few months ago, some researchers in California produce this vehicle, which even won an award. It apparently only costs 4,000 dollars even though it has four solar panels on it. My guess is that those four solar panels would cost 4,000 dollars on their own. The question is whether those panels will actually produce more energy than is required to move them -- if you take a look at the video, you'll notice that the TV journalist is driving down the street in the shade. Overall, the vehicle looks extremely large and bulky, and the price tag is unrealistic.

And of course, the researchers created the vehicle by reinventing the wheel: they claim that all of this is new, but the European Twike has been around for more than ten years. I rented one for a weekend to try it out back in 2001, and I can report that there is plenty of arm and leg room in the vehicle. It is also truly a replacement for a car (rather than for a bicycle) except for long trips; the Twike maxes out at 90 kilometers per hour and can go more than 100 kilometers depending on the battery pack you buy and the driving conditions.

The main drawback of the Twike is the price tag. Without the battery pack, the vehicle costs around 16,000 euros. You have a pretty wide selection of small cars at that price. To make matters worse, a large battery pack will actually double the price. And although proponents of electric cars like to point out that you only need a couple of euros worth of electricity to take you 100 kilometers, they fail to point out that after less than 100,000 kilometers, you will have to replace the entire battery pack, which will entirely nullify any savings.

The real advantage of the Twike right now is that it would allow everyone to get some exercise while they make daily trips. No other vehicle I know of that is commercially available does that. I just wish the thing could be mass produced so that at least the price excluding batteries could be brought down drastically.

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