GM’s EN-V pod car up close: A reimagined car for reimagined cities

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Ride-Along

So in theory, it’s the perfect urban vehicle. But what’s it like to ride in?

Getting settled into GM’s robotic ride for the first time can be an intimidating prospect. The tall, narrow pod seems ready to topple as soon as you hop in, but in its parked state, the EN-V feels rock solid, resting forward on unseen supports. Take a seat in the futuristic red velour seats, buckle in with a lap belt clearly pulled from the GM parts bin, and you’re ready to go.

The two-wheeled design was actually developed as a joint project between GM and Segway, initially unveiled as the PUMA platform back in 2009. Like a traditional Segway, it uses gyros and subtle torque to the wheels to keep upright, but also has a sliding carriage portion that moves back and forth to center the car’s weight over the wheels. After taking a seat, it almost imperceptibly shimmies back from a parked forward-leaning stance to stand fully upright on two wheels — no training wheels required.

EN-V-concept-center-console

The controls for the EN-V actually rest between driver and passenger in a center console, where they perch on a folding arm that wouldn’t look out of place in the Millennium Falcon. No pedals here; just a touchscreen with two red arms on either side that act like a game controller (that’s no coincidence, GM got the idea from a Logitech gaming peripheral). Push them both forward and you go straight, push one side a little harder than the other and you can steer. Yank back to brake. It’s like a zero-turning radio lawn mower, minus the mulching.

The ride, surprisingly enough, is smooth and almost totally silent, save for the quiet hum of the electric motors. Even as they make tiny adjustments to keep the EN-V upright and steady, the pod feels solid and surefooted.

The benefits of a two-wheeled design are immediately obvious: After zipping around the garage down a narrow gap between crates barely wide enough for the EN-V, it comes to a brick wall. No worries. It rolls to a stop and turns around as if on a turntable, then motors out the way it came. With a giant acrylic dome for a windshield, there isn’t much you can’t see.

The car of the future feels surprisingly like sitting behind the screen of a first-person shooter – fluid, effortless and agile.

The long road to uncongested roads

While GM’s vision of an autonomous, uncrashable, pollution-free and intelligent vehicle is an encouraging thought for city dwellers fed up with gridlock, smog and the frustration of circling for parking, there remain major barriers to ever seeing one on the street.

For one thing, without meeting the same safety standards, it could never share the roads with the likes of a Suburban in the U.S. For car-to-car communication to work its crash-erasing magic, every car on the road would need to have it, which could be decades off. While smartphones could potentially help fill the gap by putting older cars and pedestrians “on the grid,” ultimately, a lot infrastructure — like traffic lights and parking spaces — would have to be equipped as well. That’s simply not going to happen overnight.

If anything, GM says, we might see EN-V vehicles popping up in more isolated locales first, like golf courses or military bases. A fleet operating there could be safely sequestered from vehicles that can’t “talk,” giving GM a real-life look at how a colony of smart vehicles might operate.

EN-V-concepts-three-designs-front

Eventually, the EN-V should also find its way to Tianjin’s Eco City, a joint project between the governments of China and Singapore. The project will literally be a city that sprouts up out of nowhere on the outskirts of Tianjin, emphasizing new technologies for greener living — like the EN-V. In late 2011, GM signed a memorandum of understanding with the developers to integrate the EN-V into the futuristic city’s infrastructure. Again, its isolation from traditional forms of transportation could make it an ideal test bed for the EN-V, though development won’t take place until the early-to-mid 2020s.

Having already won the battle to make it from the drawing board to functional prototype, an even more advanced EN-V model is on the way. The next-gen prototype will wear Chevy branding and address livability issues that didn’t need to exist in the first-gen proof-of-concept, like climate control, personal storage space and all-weather and road condition operation.

Ultimately, even if the EN-V never makes the transition to crowded city streets, GM has made its point clear: Newer cars won’t just have to go faster, further, or use less fuel. To make increasingly crowded cities work in a world that now bustles with the activity of 7 billion people, they’re going to need to get a lot smarter.

Also check out our photo gallery for official pictures of the EN-V concepts.

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