WARREN, MI – General Motors Corp. and personal mobility advocate Segway Inc. will unveil a 2-wheeled, 2-passenger vehicle in New York aimed at slashing emissions and making big-city transportation more affordable.

Chris Borroni Bird, director-advanced technology vehicle concepts at GM, says Project PUMA, or Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility, has been in the development stage for about 18 months and expects people will begin driving a second-generation version closely resembling the finished product next year. He thinks salable production of the battery-powered, 2-person vehicles could begin within five years.

“There is nothing that needs to be invented,” Borroni-Bird says during an April 6 media preview of the technology at GM’s research and development center here. “From a technical standpoint, this is very doable.”

The challenge, Borroni-Bird says, may be adapting the current transportation infrastructure to the machines. They could require a special lane on urban roadways, much like a bicycle lane, or get introduced first in less congested areas, such as a college campus, military base, resort community or a newly developed city such as Dubai.

“There are a lot of different places you could imagine these,” Borroni-Bird says.

But the goal, GM says, is for the machines to transport people around densely populated, urban locations quickly, safely, quietly, cleanly and at a total lower cost than a conventional midsize passenger car. The vehicle also enables design creativity, fashion, fun and social networking, the auto maker claims.

Project PUMA combines technologies already demonstrated by GM and Segway, such as electric drive, advanced lithium-ion batteries and vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity from the auto maker and the dynamically stabilized platform of the 2-wheeled Segway PT electric vehicle.

In fact, Borroni-Bird says, Project PUMA recalls much of the Autonomy concept car GM unveiled in 2002. Autonomy utilized a “skateboard” chassis housing an advanced battery with electric motors driving the wheels and driver operated by-wire controls.

GM essentially clips Autonomy’s chassis down to a 2-wheeled vehicle for project PUMA, but passengers still sit side-by-side. The wheels are at either side of the passengers, just like a single-passenger Segway PT.

Project PUMA also draws on the autonomous driving envisioned by the Autonomy concept, a notion “not as far out as it sounds,” Borroni-Bird says, citing the Urban Challenge autonomous driving championship GM won last year with a self-driving Chevrolet Tahoe SUV.

In addition, Project PUMA leverages GM’s expertise in connected-vehicle technologies, such as OnStar and the vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications project the auto maker currently is testing around Detroit.

The project PUMA machine can travel at speeds up to 35 mph (56 km/h) with a range of 35 miles between charges.

It seats two people in its current iteration, but Borroni-Bird sees future-generation machines coupled together for use by a family. He predicts the family could use one for commuting to work and add a second machine on the weekends, with the two pieces linking and de-linking to run errands together or separately.

Though tiny compared with a car, a global team of GM stylists are at work designing a more fashionable machine with more storage space than the bare-bones prototypes GM and Segway will unveil today.

Whatever the future holds, Borroni-Bird says urban growth trends suggest demand for such a vehicle exists. By 2030, reports say, 60% of the world’s population will be urban dwellers, up from 50% today. About 80% of the world’s wealth will occupy urban areas by 2030. And drivers in urban areas use between 30% and 40% of their fuel looking for parking.

But Project PUMA vehicles are one-sixth the size of a midsize passenger car, so a typical Manhattan block accommodating an average of 82 vehicles would fit 380 of the machines. Also, the typical New York City driver travels just 20 miles (32 km) per day at a speed of less than 20 mph (32 km/h) with an average of 1.8 people in the vehicle.

Project PUMA machines also are forecast to be much more affordable than a conventional midsize car. Borroni-Bird estimates vehicle-ownership in New York City costs about $8,000 annually, including items such as fuel and insurance, and running up to as much as $16,000 with parking and tolls. A Project PUMA machine would cost one-third to one-quarter less, he says.

But to make the concept work, Borroni-Bird says, GM and Segway need additional partners in business or government. They are inviting a city or community to step forward for testing and initial deployment.

“We are accepting applications,” jokes Phil LeMay, vice president-product development at Segway.

LeMay says project PUMA machines soon will undergo terrain testing to make sure they can handle rough roads and inclement weather, but he says feedback from the thousands of Segway PT units in markets around the world today suggests there should not be any problems.

In the meantime, he looks forward to more people getting behind the yoke of a Project PUMA machine.

“The machine is very exhilarating to drive,” he says.

jamend@wardsauto.com