The driver and passenger enter the EN-V through the front. The transparent panel either swings upward or pushes forward to allow access. Once seat-belted, the driver takes hold of a rectangular steering wheel about the size of a small tablet computer with hand grips on either side. The steering wheel is the interface with the vehicle's onboard computer, enabling the driver to manually steer the EN-V or set the vehicle to travel autonomously, connect to the Internet, and conduct a video chat with other EN-V drivers. Internet connectivity is through wi-fi, but the vehicle transmits collision avoidance signals to other EN-Vs via dedicated short-range communications (DSRC), a 5.9 gigahertz spectrum allocated by the federal government for public safety.
Pressing a button on the steering wheel brings the vehicle to life; it rises from a resting position into "balance mode" on two wheels. The sensation is much like riding a Segway scooter—in fact, the EN-V's propulsion and balancing systems are based on Segway technology. A push forward on the steering column moves the vehicle forward, whereas pulling it back brakes the vehicle. An EN-V can be put in reverse with the push of a button, but this would rarely be needed because the vehicle can rotate on its axis to face any direction. At least five EN-Vs can fit within a conventional parking space.
The ride is smooth, although it has a tight suspension that lets the driver and passenger feel the bumps. Because there is no mechanical linkage between the vehicle's controls and its drive unit, the EN-V is not subject to inertia, making it very responsive to the driver's commands, says EN-V development engineer and demo driver Pri Mudalige, who adds, "It's the ultimate drive-by-wire vehicle, put it that way."
An EN-V scoots along at up to 40 kilometers per hour with a range of up to 65 kilometers on a fully charged battery. The driver can program the maximum speed as well as the rate of the vehicle's acceleration, deceleration and rotation on its axis. Mudalige set his test-drive speed at 16 kilometers per hour. The rotation was set at 60 degrees per second, although it can spin at up to 180 degrees per second.
The EN-Vs performed as advertised during their CES demo, but they have a long way to go before they are road-ready, which GM projects will not be before 2030. Why two decades? All of the pieces have yet to fall into place. Next-generation 4G wireless networks that enable incredibly fast data transfers and serve as the EN-V's communication infrastructure first need to be implemented. (Carriers such as Verizon and AT&T are just beginning to roll them out this year). Engineers and urban planners also need to figure out how the EN-Vs can coexist on roadways with conventional vehicles, which are at least three to four times bigger and heavier. One idea is to cordon off urban areas and designate them off-limits to vehicles over a certain size. In addition, policies, financing and other incentives need to be put in place by local and possibly national governments to encourage the acceptance of vehicles like the EN-V by people other than a small group of intrepid early adopters.
One of the EN-V program's main goals is to create a viable alternative to today's urban transportation options. "I don't think the solution is that everyone has to take the train or the bus or cycle," Christopher Borroni-Bird, director of GM's Advanced Technology Vehicle Concepts and the EN-V program, said last week at CES. "On the other hand, the car as we know it today is going to be increasingly challenged in the future. It's not sustainable from a land–space perspective or from an energy perspective to have everybody driving a car."