Saturday, Jan. 8, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
When Christopher Borroni-Bird, director of General Motors’ EN-V program, envisions the cities of the future, he sees streets free of traffic congestion and collisions, where people maneuver through the urban landscape in small, autonomously piloted pods with ease and grace.
With the EN-V, an “urban electric concept car” that made its public debut in North America at the Consumer Electronics Show this week, Borroni-Bird plans to revolutionize the way we move.
That is, if he can get production off the ground.
The EN-V was “the star of the show” when it premiered at the World Expo in Shanghai on May 1, 2010, Borroni-Bird said. But he acknowledged the vehicle will face challenges as it transitions from novelty to the mass market.
The EN-V — there is no timetable for mass production — attempts to solve the problem of urban congestion, while “preserving the basic elements of a car,” Borroni-Bird said.
It’s best described as a pod — the front opens like a hatch and you climb in — with enough room for two passengers. Sitting on two wheels, a self-balancing system allows the vehicle to make 360-degree turns while idling in one spot.
The lithium-phosphate battery, which propels the vehicle at a top speed of 25 mph, has a range of about 25 miles and takes eight hours to charge if totally depleted.
The vehicle isn’t meant to replace traditional automobiles, said Borroni-Bird, who began working on the EN-V program four years ago. The goal is to provide a safe, more efficient option for short trips, he said.
The EN-V comes in three subtly distinct models: the red Jiao (“pride” in Chinese), the black Miao (“magic”) and the light blue Xiao (“laugh”).
Most importantly, the EV-V comes equipped with an autopilot.
In Borroni-Bird’s vision, the EN-V could communicate with other cars on the road and traffic signals, while also utilizing sensors on the body to drive itself. With Wi-Fi capabilities and a built-in webcam, drivers could even hold video conferences while on the move.
And to top it off, the EN-V parks itself with the press of a button.
“Congestion is already a problem, and it’s just going to get worse,” Borroni-Bird said. The crowded streets of China made that country an obvious choice for the EN-V’s world premiere, he said.
Real-world testing is the hurdle that the EN-V has to jump, Borroni-Bird said. Although he had a long list of possible venues — gated communities, senior centers, urban downtowns, small islands, an environment like the Las Vegas Strip — where the vehicle could prove useful, its implementation would require a complete overhaul of the infrastructure.
Electric charging stations, an extensive wireless communications network and — in all likelihood — physical routes for the vehicles to travel would be necessary before the vehicles could hit the road.
“You don’t want to prove them out in the streets,” said Borroni-Bird, one of the authors of “Reinventing the Automobile.” The vehicle’s success will “take some time, vision and leadership.”
As for the ride itself, from the passenger seat, it felt smooth with a few bumps, a side effect of the self-balancing system. The massive front windshield provides a full view of the outside world, and the accommodations are more roomy than they might appear from the outside.
The 360-degree turns, in particular, highlighted the EN-V’s mobility, and the motor demonstrated some get-up-and-go. Thomas Brown, a researcher with GM who has been driving the pods for about a year, said learning to maneuver the EN-V is intuitive.
The futuristic pods attracted a steady crowd of curious onlookers in a parking lot in front of the Las Vegas Convention Center on Friday afternoon, and Borroni-Bird said he hopes the exposure at this week’s CES give the EN-V some momentum as it takes steps toward the consumer market.
“We knew the crowd would appreciate our vision,” he said. “We want people to get excited.”