By Wil Longbottom
Baby, you can drive my car: The EN-Vcar, pronounced 'envy', is show-cased in Shanghai
OK, it's not quite as foldable as the space vehicle that cartoon figure George Jetson pops into his briefcase as he heads into the office.
But the EN-V concept car, GM's 'automobile solution' for the future, just might fit into an apartment foyer.
The space age electric car has been designed to avoid accidents by automatically swerving around other cars by communicating with them.
General Motors and its Chinese partner SAIC showcased the 'Electric Networked-Vehicle' yesterday in their joint pavilion at the Shanghai Expo, which opens May 1 and runs for six months.
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Five of the EN-Vs fit in the parking space needed for one conventional vehicle, claim GM
The EN-V, pronounced 'envy' is GM's latest effort to burnish its credentials as a future-focused, environmentally friendly company and shed its image as the bastion of the gas guzzling Hummer.
The automaker is in the process of winding down Hummer after a deal collapsed to sell it to a Chinese heavy equipment maker.
The Detroit car manufacturer is hoping the helmet-shaped vehicle will help establish it as a significant player in fuel-efficient vehicles after emerging from bankruptcy last July.
GM is not alone in viewing China as the ultimate landscape for tiny urban vehicles. Daimler introduced its Smart ultracompact here in 2008, though few of them can be seen yet on Shanghai streets.
The concept behind the car has already been seen in Hollywood blockbuster films including Minority Report and I-Robot, starring Will Smith.
The two-wheel, two-seater EN-V, which looks something like an oversized vacuum cleaner, is not just about making vehicles small, lightweight and emission-free, the company says.
Kevin Wale, president and managing director of GM China Group, speaks at the launch ceremony with three versions of the car behind him
he's off: The EN-V is taken for a spin at the unveiling
'What we're talking about here is completely redoing the automobile,' says Michael Albano, GM director of product and technology communications.
With the trunk-less EN-V, GM has jettisoned the traditional 'three box' system and petrol-fuelled engine in place of a pure-electric minivehicle meant strictly for city driving.
Other major car manufacturers, including Toyota and Nissan, have produced similar zero-emission mobility concepts as they look to meet higher fuel economy standards and increased consumer demand for greener models.
Five fit in the parking space needed for one conventional vehicle, says Kevin Wale, president and managing director for GM China Group.
'GM's vision with SAIC is petroleum-free, emission-free, accident-free and congestion-free,' said Mr Wale.
'We think we can do that by combining the benefits of electricity and connectivity.'
What better a place to suggest such a solution than in smoggy, accident-plagued, traffic congested China, home to 1.3 billion people?
By 2040, GM says, there will be 1.2 billion cars on Earth, and 60 per cent of humanity will be living in cities. For megacity countries like China, the explosion in use of conventional automobiles has already turned into a nightmare of smog, jammed roadways, and non-existent parking.
China is GM's second largest market after the U.S. and a strategic background as car manufacturers compete for the biggest market share.
In 2009, GM sold 1.83million vehicles in China, up 67 per cent, and broke its own sales records every single month of the year.
It is expect to sell more than two million this year.
The 1.5m by 1.5m (about 5ft by 5ft) EN-V appears to build on GM's earlier work with Segway Inc. in developing the PUMA, or Personal Urban Mobility and Accessibility, vehicle.
It will use the same types of battery cells as the Segway and the same battery supplier, Valence Technology Inc., said Christopher Borroni-Bird, GM's director of advanced technology vehicle concepts.
With the EN-V, GM proposes to reconstruct the automobile's 'DNA'.
The EN-V's maximum speed of only 40km per hour (24mph) - even now city roads average only 20km per hour (12mph) and often less - and other high-tech features reduce the need for heavy, high-stress steel, bumpers, air bags and crumple zones, says Mr Albano.
Apart from its diminutive size and light weight - 400kg (880lb) including the passengers - the vehicle would offer drivers the option of 'autonomous driving':
letting the car drive itself via an elaborate system of GPS systems, digital maps, roadway and vehicle sensors, cameras and other devices.
'None of this is beyond the technology that exists today,' Mr Wale says.
The idea of allowing the car to take over may sound alarming to some, especially given the recalls due to unintended acceleration and other problems with some Toyota vehicles.
But GM's experts say there would be fail-safe backups for any electronics and that, properly equipped and in the right setting, vehicles can do a better job than humans at averting accidents.
In theory, EN-Vs could be hitched together to allow drivers to commute to work while finishing up shaving, phone calls or whatever else without endangering fellow road warriors.
But such functions would have to be optional, Wale says.
'We don't want to take the excitement out of driving,' he said.
The Shanghai Expo, with its theme of 'Better City, Better Life,' offers an apt occasion for GM to introduce its vision for a solution to the urban ills growing worse day-by-day thanks to China's craze for cars.
Whether China and its drivers - who seem inordinately fond of big, heavy cars and nearly acrobatic feats of lane switching - would go for this concept remains to be seen.
But GM does have a track record - at least in its distant past - of foreseeing at least some future trends.
The GM 'Futurama' vision of a superhighway system, introduced at the 1939 New York World's Fair, is said to have inspired the U.S. Interstate Highway System.
'We're looking at solutions for 2030,' said Mr Wale.
'We're looking at ways we can recreate the business we're in a way that takes into account the changes in the world since the products we're using today were invented under a different set of circumstances.'