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Aug 22, 2008

Innovations in urban transportation mean that you can drive the car of tomorrow, today.

By Matthew Schaeffer

Earlier this summer, Robert Penske, the chairman of the Michigan-based Penske Automotive Group (the sole U.S. distributor of Smart minicars), announced that the company expects to sell more than 25,000 of its ForTwo models this year. If that mark is met, the company would surpass initial sales estimates by 35 percent, even as the auto industry registers its weakest sales numbers in 15 years.
The announcement comes only weeks after the news that in May, the Honda Civic Hybrid displaced the Ford F-Series truck as the country’s best-selling vehicle—the first time in 16 years that a passenger car topped that list.
Though there had been widespread speculation that the drastic rise in gas prices would lead to a shift in car sales, nobody expected it would come so quickly or be so dramatic.
While the increased fuel efficiency of hybrids have made them a popular choice for car buyers looking to save money at the pump, a new breed of vehicles is popping up. Scooters, three-wheelers and minicars are giving urban drivers a new set of options for navigating the gridlock that plagues metropolitan roadways.

Smart Move
One of the first designs to focus specifically on urban driving habits was Smart. After launching in 1994, Smart’s minicars quickly became a favorite of urban drivers, selling over 900,000 units around the world. Now that Smart cars are available in the U.S.—the first ForTwos were delivered to owners in the spring—drivers are lining up for the chance to be the first on their block to own the smallest car ever to be mass produced.
But it’s more than just the soaring price of gas or cool new products that are leading to this shift in consumer attitudes. Increased air and noise pollution and congested roadways, coupled with the development of new energy sources to power vehicles, have led manufacturers of all types of urban transports to invest in new designs to change the way we get around town.
“When you look at, say, six, seven years ago, there’s a huge difference in the amount of concepts and also of near concept cars that you see around,” says Paul Schilperoord, author of Future Tech: Innovations in Transportation.

A host of new vehicles designed specifically for navigating city streets have already hit the market. Find out all about their features in our interactive graphic.

Breaking the Mold
One of the early attempts at jumpstarting this new urban transportation trend—which may have actually jumped the gun—was Segway.
The 2001 release of Segway’s two-wheeled, electric PT, or “personal transporter,” was supposed to be the spark that ignited a transportation revolution. Prior to its release, Internet speculation about the design of the then-unknown product, along with advance raves from the likes of Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs, who claimed it would be “as big as the PC,” led to a nationwide buzz before its unveiling on “Good Morning, America.”
The public wasn’t impressed. The Segway was criticized for its expense (early models were priced around $5,000) and lack of range (only 25 miles on a full charge). Even with all of the attention, its debut was a major disappointment, with only 6,000 PTs sold in all of 2003.
How times have changed. Now, with gas prices at over $4 per gallon, Segway sales are on the rise. Though only around 40,000 personal transports have made it onto the streets, sales were up 25 percent through the first quarter of the year and are expected to rise 50 percent by year’s end.

With demand—and gas prices—near all-time highs, vehicle concepts that were once pure fantasy will soon be hitting the street near you. Find out all about their features in our interactive graphic.

Up Next
The success of Smart and Segway are part of a wider trend toward new modes of urban transportation.
From solar-powered scooters and stackable cars to three-wheeled cruisers and mini-minicars, the concepts keep rolling out. Major auto manufacturers, including Toyota, Honda and GM, have invested hundreds of millions of dollars on research and development over the past decade to develop technologies that will redefine the way we get around town.
Rising consumer demand for smaller, more fuel efficient and more practical modes of transportation means more of these designs are making it from the drawing board to the showroom floor.
No longer just the dream of eco-conscious design teams, these are the vehicles that are showing up at dealerships nationwide and giving consumers a chance to pick a vehicle that makes sense for them…and for everybody else.

Listen to Paul Schilperoord, author of Future Tech: Innovations in Transportation, talk about the future of urban vehicles.


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What junk! All you need to do is ad a small trailing tricycle wheel and you have an 3 wheel electric scooter at 1/10 the cost. All that hardware and technology went into the balancing act. What I just dscribed could be made to sell for under $300 with a Lipo power source too. If all you need is a personal transporter to take you from A to B, why soend all that money for the hocus pokus balancing sytem?

Burt Trattner
Aug 28, 2008

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