What the PUMA Represents

I had a bit of fun yesterday evening with the new product announcement from GM and Segway: the PUMA. Lots of other people have been having their fun and at least one strange person over at Calculated Risk is actually taking it seriously, the poor bugger.

So, rather than just have some fun and let it go at that, let me be more constructive this morning and discuss what is actually wrong with the new prototype. Take another look at the vehicle and most of us from Rochester don’t need to think too long before we see what the problem is with it. I can’t even imagine navigating Rochester’s poorly-maintained winter roads in something so small. I also can’t quite wrap my head around why I would voluntarily drive this thing around in a Rochester October rain.

So one problem, in a nutshell, is that this vehicle simply isn’t designed as a serious all-weather alternative for any place north of Washington, DC. The most densely populated areas in America with the greatest concentration of wealth are simply left out of the equation on this vehicle. That’s not a very good way to foster the early adoption necessary for long-term viability. With apologies to my friends in other places, if it’s not being used in New York, Chicago or Philly, it’s just not going to happen.

But there’s a much, much larger issue at stake here, which is that PUMA stands for “Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility,” is a project doomed to spend it’s days in cities, stranded by it’s lack of resources. What’s the problem with that?

In short, eight decades of oil hegemony, that’s what. Our society has been carefully sculpted over the course of the last eighty years or so precisely so that we use lots and lots of oil. Urban sprawl, commuting, gas-guzzling vehicles and vacationing are all products of a government working hard – in tandem with automakers – to make sure we never ever failed to use the largest share of oil on the planet.

And hey! We Lefties can bitch about it all we want, but that hegemony sure has done us a world of good. We owe our entire lives as we know them to that under-the-radar empire the United States has built for ourselves. So, this isn’t a rant on the evil that men do.

But if automakers are serious about green energy, they’re going to need to find a solution – a fuel-efficient automotive solution – to the problem of our impossibly distant lives. They need to build cars that bridge the gap between the PUMA, which may yet be our future, and our unsustainable past as typified by the SUV. This is true for both practical and egotist reasons.

Because we can try our damnedest to make urban life sound like a good idea; we can try to make urban living the hip alternative to suburban sprawl, but that’s not going to make enough of a difference for enough people to make our ultra-modern life-on-two-wheels PUMA a practical reality. Fine if Segway wants to put this little piece of crap out there to sit along side their other two-wheeled success stories in Caribbean tourist trap cities. But don’t ask us to applaud GM for going “all modern” with this junk.


They’re Still Saturn

In response to some of the concern out there about Saturn’s potential demise, Saturn has sent out an email to it’s customers. They say that the idea may be for Saturn to go it’s own separate way, not to vanish as we fear:

Today, we confirmed that Saturn and GM would further investigate one of those options: a spin-off of an independent Saturn Distribution Corporation.

The Saturn Distribution Corporation already exists as an indirect subsidiary of GM. It’s the entity with which our retailers currently have their franchise agreement. An independent Saturn would still have its great retailers, and it would continue to source current products from GM through 2011. If successful, SDC at that point would source products from other manufacturers.

The goal—from a product perspective—would be to find future vehicles that match the Saturn Brand: fuel-efficient, safe, reliable and affordable. From a retailing perspective, we would build on our core strength of unmatched customer service. The same hassle-free experience that is a hallmark of the brand could be taken to even higher levels.

This leaves open the question of what they do to manufacture cars without GM’s backbone. The implication is that they would outsource elsewhere, but where?


Decision Making is Key

GM is in trouble. OK, I get that. GM needs to make sacrifices. OK, I get that.

But why the hell are they getting rid of Saturn? This is their best product line by far and the most affordable. Many people shy away from GM cars – and besides, they’re boring anyway – but they love their Saturns.

I think it shows the worthiness of GM that when pushed to make any decision at all, they make the one that will cost them the most. I was going to buy an Aura as soon as I got a new job. Now, I will be looking elsewhere.