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In Depth: General Motors EN-V

General Motors' EN-V project may look like science fiction come to life, but the concept isn't so far-fetched. A closer inspection reveals that the infrastructure may be in its infancy, but most of the technology is almost ready for primetime.

GM's EN-V is based on a platform developed by Segway, the same company whose two-wheeled scooters have taken the shopping mall security industry by storm. In April of 2009, Segway developed the Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility (PUMA) prototype, which GM co-opted and developed to create its EN-V concepts.

Each wheel of the EN-V has its own electric motor, allowing it to be incredibly maneuverable both at high- and low-speeds. The brushless DC motors get power from a package of air-cooled lithium-ion phosphate batteries, the same battery tech already used on the EN-V's big brother, the Chevrolet Volt. The 3.2 kWh battery allows the EN-V to travel about 25 miles on a single charge and can reach speeds of between 25 and 30 mph.

Since the motors can work together or independently, the EN-V can turn or reverse direction in tight spaces, making it perfect for congested urban environments. Not only that, but the concepts are about half the size of a Smart ForTwo, so you can fit six of the futuristic pods into a typical parking space.

The EN-V's dynamic stabilization technology is partially responsible for the vehicle's small footprint. By using weight sensors and gyroscopes, the EN-V can balance itself on just two wheels, while still carrying two people and a little cargo.

What about the promise that the EN-V can drive itself? That might not be appealing to your average gearhead, but imagine driving to and from your destination as you normally would – now imagine never having to hassle with parking. You simply hop out near your destination and the EN-V parks itself.

There's also another possible use for the EN-V. Since 1991 GM has had a Mobility Assistance Program in place designed to help disabled people with their transportation needs. Dr Chris Borroni-Bird, Director of Advanced Technology Vehicle Concepts for GM says, "Imagine how a vehicle like the EN-V could help the many people who are no longer able to drive, yet still want the freedom and autonomy of a personal car."

A combination of drive-by-wire technology and GPS would make all this possible. And since most smartphones have a built-in GPS transmitter, calling the EN-V back to your location would be no more complex than calling up an app and pressing a few buttons. Combine this with drive-by-wire technology that's already in use and the EN-V suddenly seems like more science than fiction. Plus, the EN-V can be driven manually or automatically. So maybe you had a little too much to drink at dinner – switch it to auto-drive, send your address to the car from your phone and the EN-V takes you safely home.

The reality is that the majority of modern cars already use drive-by-wire components for acceleration, braking and steering. Mate those systems with a fast processor, GPS and the proper algorithms, and you've got the makings of an autonomous vehicle. Take it a step further, and it's obvious that drive-by-wire components don't care whether the electric impulses come from a controller installed in the car or a cloud based server – the desired effect is all the same.

This isn't the first time GM has built a car that drives itself. Some of the EN-V's auto-drive technologies were derived from the company's DARPA Urban Challenge vehicle. Ford and Toyota have cars that can essentially park themselves and Mitsubishi recently allowed people to virtually test drive the Outlander Sport from the comfort of their home computer.

Add ultrasonic and Doppler based sensors (already in use in use in cars with parking sensors) for object avoidance, OnStar for vehicle-to-vehicle communication and suddenly the EN-V driving itself is the least of its problems.

What is a big problem for the EN-V is that by today's rules it would be classified as a neighborhood electric vehicle (NEV) and wouldn't be allowed on crowed city streets populated by cars three times its size. GM says this could be addressed by building separate driving areas for vehicles like the EN-V, but with local governments struggling to keep schools and fire stations open, that seems unlikely in the near – or even distant – future.

The EN-V's body and canopy are constructed of carbon fiber, Lexan and acrylic composites that are both lightweight and strong. Still, even GM admits the EN-V is "incompatible with other vehicles when it comes to crash worthiness." If you didn't catch that, "incompatible" is engineer-speak for saying a collision between a Malibu and an EN-V wouldn't turn out so well for GM's pod people.

But all told, crash-testing and an unbreakable wireless infrastructure are the missing links between tangible reality and pure fantasy. Clearly, the EN-V isn't as farfetched as it seems, but it's also a long way from reality. For more, check out Translogic Episode 41.

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