At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, General Motors sponsored a “Futurama” exhibit that depicted what the world might look like 20 years in the future. Back then, suburbs connected to cities by high-speed expressways were the thing of dreams, but something that came to pass soon afterwards thanks in part to the vehicles built by GM and other automakers.
Now, the American company is collaborating with a Chinese-Singaporean consortium that is building a real-life city of the future where cars as we know them are set to play a much smaller role than they do today, but where a forward-thinking GM still sees a great opportunity for growth.
Located on the outskirts of one of China’s largest existing metropolises, the Tianjin Eco-City was conceived as a large-scale prototype for sustainable, high-density communities. A reliance on renewable energy sources and mass transit are key elements in its environmentally-friendly design.
But even though its creators are planning for 90 percent of its eventual population of 350,000 to get around town using a light rail system, there will still be a need for individual point to point transportation, and that’s where GM comes in.
At the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the automaker unveiled the innovative EN-V concept, which mates a version of the self-balancing, two-wheel propulsion system used in the utilitarian Segway PT with an enclosed passenger compartment that seats either one or two people and has all of the creature comforts of a car.
But the tricks that make the upright, battery-powered vehicle more than just a Segway fit for bad weather are advanced telematics that allow it to “talk” to and avoid other EN-Vs nearby and an array of cameras that scan the area around it for pedestrians and other obstacles. Combined with a super-accurate GPS system, the EN-V is theoretically accident-proof and able to drive itself Unfortunately, due to its small size, light weight and lack of traditional safety equipment, EN-V is not well-suited for use on highways or the same roads as traditional cars and trucks.
EN-V spokesman, Dan Flores tells FoxNews.com that GM has been looking for partners to help it demonstrate this technology in a real world environment, but that existing cities find it hard enough to fit bike lanes into existing transportation networks, let alone the type of roadway and charging infrastructure that would be necessary to facilitate the use of these types of vehicles.
Instead, by teaming up with a development like Tianjin Eco-City, EN-V can be incorporated into the clean sheet urban planning, making it a much more appealing prospect for residents in need of personal mobility.
While the partnership is in its early stages, Flores notes that if the vehicles do make it to the road they will probably not look exactly like the current EN-V concepts. Instead, the prototypes are more representative of GM thinking out loud about solutions to a growing global population and will be further developed before entering production.
With 60 percent of the Earth’s projected population of 8 billion people expected to be living in crowded cities in the year 2030, the cars that have been General Motor’s bread and butter for the past century will inevitably be supplemented in some part by new forms of transportation. That doesn’t mean GM is ready to let someone else reap the benefits. The company already builds and sells more cars in China than it does in the United States, and it clearly sees the potential in being on the forefront of cutting-edge mobility there and in other emerging markets where the number of megacities of 10 million or more people will grow with increasing industrialization.
When the Segway was first introduced back in 2001, Apple CEO Steve Jobs reportedly said that one day they’ll build cities around it. It’s not the first thing he’s been right about, but it’s unlikely that he expected “they” to be General Motors.
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.