It is estimated that by 2030, urban areas will be home to more than 60 percent of the world’s eight billion people. That doesn’t bode well for cities with public infrastructure that is already struggling to meet the growing demand for transportation. General Motors (GM) and its strategic partner, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp. Group (SAIC) have come up with a concept two-wheeled vehicle to address the need for personal urban transportation in the cities of the future.

EN-V, short for Electric Networked-Vehicle, is a two-seat, local emission-free vehicle propelled by electric motors in each of its two driving-mode wheels. The motors not only provide power for acceleration, but also bring the vehicle to a stop. The vehicle’s drivetrain platform is an evolution of the platform of the Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility (P.U.M.A.) prototype developed by Segway. Segway has worked with GM to develop and deliver multiple copies of the drivetrain platform that connect to and power various EN-Vs.

Power for the motors is provided by lithium-ion batteries and recharging can occur from a conventional wall outlet using standard household power. The EN-V is able to travel at least 40 kilometers on a single charge. It can also communicate with the electric grid to determine the best time to recharge based on overall usage.

Dynamic stabilization technology gives EN-V the ability to carry two passengers and light cargo in a footprint that’s about a third that of a traditional vehicle as well as enabling it to “turn on a dime”. In addition, everything in the EN-V is drive-by-wire, giving the vehicle the ability to operate autonomously or under manual control. Manual or Auto (Autonomous that is) By combining the Global Positioning System (GPS) with vehicle-to-vehicle communications and distance-sensing technologies, the EN-V concept can be driven both manually and autonomously.

Its autonomous operating capability offers the promise of reducing traffic congestion by allowing EN-V to automatically select the fastest route based on real-time traffic information. The concept also leverages wireless communications to enable a “social network” that can be used by drivers and occupants to communicate with friends or business associates while on the go.

GM says the combination of sensing technology, wireless communication and GPS-based navigation establishes a technology foundation, pieces of which could migrate from the EN-V concept and potentially lead the way to future advanced vehicle safety systems.

The ability to communicate with other vehicles and with the infrastructure could dramatically reduce the number of vehicle accidents. Using vehicle-based sensor and camera systems, EN-V can “sense” what’s around it, allowing the vehicle to react quickly to obstacles or changes in driving conditions. For example, if a pedestrian steps out in front of the vehicle, EN-V will decelerate to a slower and safer speed and stop sooner than today’s vehicles.

GM has experience in developing autonomous driving technology having worked alongside students at Carnegie Mellon University to create “The Boss” Chevroloet Tahoe that took out the DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007. The competition required teams to build an autonomous vehicle capable of driving in traffic, performing complex maneuvers such as merging, passing, parking and negotiating intersections. GM says the EN-V takes the lessons learned in “The Boss” and offers mobility to people who could not otherwise operate a vehicle.

“The EN-V concept represents a major breakthrough in the research that GM has been doing to bring vehicle autonomy to life,” said Alan Taub, Global Vice President of GM Research and Development. “The building blocks that enable the autonomous capabilities found on the EN-V concept such as lane departure warning, blind zone detection and adaptive cruise control are being used in some GM vehicles on the road today.”

Design and Materials

According to GM, the EN-V has been designed for the “speed and range of today’s urban drivers” – which, if my part of the world is anything to go by, means not very fast. It weighs less than 500kg (1,102-lb) and is about 1.5m (4.9-ft) in length - by comparison, today’s typical automobile weighs more than 1,500 kg (3,307-lb) and is three times as long. In addition, today’s automobiles require more than 10 square meters of parking space and are parked more than 90 percent of the time. EN-V’s smaller size and greater maneuverability mean the same parking lot can accommodate five times as many EN-Vs as typical automobiles.

The body and canopy of EN-V are constructed from carbon fiber, custom-tinted Lexan and acrylic, materials that are more commonly used in race cars, military airplanes and spacecraft because of their strength and lightweight characteristics.

EN-V’s interior design provides maximum visibility to the outside environment and includes a simple interface for activating Wi-Fi-based technologies for staying connected with the outside world.

To showcase the flexibility of the propulsion platform GM had design teams around the world provide their visions of what the EN-V should look like. Xiao (Laugh) was designed by GM Holden’s design team in Australia, while the look of Jiao (Pride) was penned by designers at GM Europe and Miao (Magic) was designed at the General Motors Advanced Design Studio in the U.S. state of California.

GM and SAIC unveiled the three EN-V designs in Shanghai today. They will be showcased at World Expo 2010 in Shanghai from May 1 through October 31 at the SAIC-GM Pavilion.