General Motors (GM) is hoping an autonomous, two-wheeled electric car will help the manufacturer make serious inroads into the emerging Asian markets.
The US-based firm behind Vauxhall has set itself the huge challenge of designing a new personal transport solution for the rapidly expanding and densely populated cities of countries such as China, that will also limit increases in congestion, carbon emissions and road accidents.
The results are certainly striking: the pod-like concept vehicle, revealed earlier this year at the Shanghai World Expo as GM’s vision for 2030, comes in three unusual and suitably Asian-looking designs, with one from Opel/Vauxhall Advanced Design in Germany.
Known as the EN-V (Electric Networked Vehicle), the car is powered by a lithium-ion battery and has a carbon-fibre body that sits on a sliding chassis developed from the original Segway vehicle. The front-entrance two-seater car balances on two wheels when activated and lowers its nose to the ground when parked.
GM says an autonomous driving system that uses visual and ultrasonic sensors, plus a wireless internet connection, will help the car to avoid traffic jams and other vehicles, helping to limit congestion and improve safety. The car also has the ability to park and drive itself along a programmed route.
The aim of EN-V is to combine a small environmental footprint with networking capabilities, said GM’s director of advanced technology vehicle concept, Christopher Borroni-Bird, speaking at the vehicle’s London preview on September 10.
‘If we just have a lot of electric vehicles running around we haven’t really changed the congestion and parking issues, which are challenges facing urban centres in the future.’
These are daunting challenges: as Borroni-Bird himself points out, congestion in some cities is already so high that Beijing recently experienced a 60 mile long traffic jam lasting 10 days, while police in Bangkok receive midwife training to cope with the number of babies born on the roads.
GM has a great opportunity increase its 13.4 per cent market share in China with millions of Chinese expected to buy their first cars over the next 20 years thanks to the growth of the country’s middle class.
With a power output of 3.2kWh providing a top speed of 25mph and a range of 25 miles, the two-seater EN-V could suit consumers who might be upgrading from a scooter or bicycle and want an urban commuter vehicle, although it’s clearly not for those who want a Western-style family car or travel often outside the city.
But data already suggests that higher population density breaks down the trend for richer populations to buy more cars. Singapore, for example, has a lower rate of vehicle ownership than less-densely populated European cities, despite similar levels of wealth.
GM’s idea to have a network of cars that can communicate with each other and monitor traffic information sounds promising, although it doesn’t escape the fact that a substantial increase in car ownership will inevitably increase congestion.
The autonomous aspect of the network concept also has a serious barrier in the form of the legal ramifications of self-driving cars. And while cars that can talk to each other might easily avoid crashes, they wouldn’t be able to prevent a four-by-four slamming into the back of one.
Affordability is also an issue. A car featuring cutting-edge propulsion technology, high-concept design and autonomous navigation doesn’t immediately sound like a good entry point for citizens of developing countries.
Barroni-Bird said the affordability would come in the low-power aspect of the platform, which made it much more suitable to urban driving than the ‘over-engineered’ cars typical of Western cities.
‘A battery-powered vehicle with the kind of range we’re looking at isn’t tremendously expensive,’ he said. ‘The other thing is tremendous economies of scale are possible. This technology platform comprising the chassis, motor and wireless communication system could be a common platform for customised coaches.’
GM claims to be talking to several Asian governments about taking the idea further but Borroni-Bird admitted the firm had no step-by-step plan for getting the car to market, and issues like safety, storage and air conditioning still needed addressing. It may even create an intermediate model combining the EN-V with elements of a conventional car.
‘There are a lot of different ideas bouncing around the company,’ he said ‘These vehicles as they are aren’t suitable for testing. What we need to do is to make them practical.’
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