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Wired Wheels: Taking a Spin in the Future of Urban Transportation [Video]

General Motors offers a taste of its Electric Networked Vehicle at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show
consumer electronics, battery, electric



Larry Greenemeier/Scientific American

The solution to traffic-clogged cities has long been thought to be more mass transit. For the past few years, however, engineers at General Motors have been looking at the problem of urban sprawl through a different lens, one that takes advantage of advances in electric-vehicle technology and wireless connectivity to enable a more personal mode of transportation that is faster and safer than a bicycle yet smaller and more environmentally friendly than an automobile.

GM unveiled the Electric Networked Vehicle (EN-V), the company's vision of sustainable urban mobility, last year at the World Expo in Shanghai. Last week at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), GM was ready to provide a glimpse what these two-wheel, two-person personal transports can do [see video below].

In a parking lot outside the Las Vegas Convention Center EN-V designers and engineers demonstrated the vehicles' capacity to communicate wirelessly with one another and drive autonomously or under the control of a driver as well as essentially eliminate one of the most dreaded maneuvers in the urban driver's skill set—parallel parking.

The EN-V prototypes come in three different designs. The red and black Jiao, Chinese for "pride," was inspired by a Beijing Opera mask, whereas as the gray and green-neon Miao, Chinese for "magic," would look at home in the urban cityscape portrayed in the recent TRON sequel. Meanwhile, the Xiao, Chinese for "laugh," looks a bit like a traditional diving helmet.

 

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."

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