Imagine an urban runabout that drives itself, leaving you free to work or watch in-car television during the daily commute; that parks itself after dropping you off at the office; and that communicates with other cars, making accidents impossible.
A Utopian dream? General Motors doesn't think so. It has three such cars named Xiao (the Chinese word for laugh), Jiao (pride) and Miao (magic) doing 24 demonstration runs a day at the World Expo in Shanghai right now.
They are electrically propelled two-wheeled two-seaters only 1.5 metres long, so they don't need much parking space. They weighing around 400kg, so they don't need huge, expensive battery packs; and are capable of moving in any direction, so they can turn 180 degrees in less than two metres of road space.
All are built on what GM calls its skateboard platform, a magnesium-and-aluminium structure similar to a Segway a two-wheeler scooter-like contraption that goes and stops according to the body movements of the rider. GM has fitted three different painted carbonfibre bodies to give Xiao, Jiao and Miao different characters.
Commutable range, top speed of 25mph
All three cars have a range of 25 miles and a top speed of 25mph. They are powered by 3.2 kW lithium-ion battery packs delivering 18kW (25bhp), but 325lb ft of torque virtually from step-off.
Wireless technology and vision and range sensors allow them to recognise the presence of other vehicles and avoid them while a smartphone sends them off to find a parking space without manual control and return to pick you up when you are ready to go home.
They are part of GM's Electric Networked Vehicle (EN-V) programme, which envisages the cars and transport systems we will need in 2030. With 60% of the world's growing population expected to live in megacities in 20 years' time, especially in Asia, and the number of cars on the road likely to double from the current 632 million to 1.2 billion by 2040, GM is seeking solutions to the pollution, congestion, parking and safety problems this will cause.
'The solution is electrification and connectivity (vehicles that can communicate with each other),' says Liverpool-born Dr Christopher Borroni-Bird, GM's director of advanced technology vehicle concepts.
'Today's vehicles are designed for going between cities, which means they are over-engineered and expensive for use within cities. What we are proposing is affordable technology that could be inexpensive to make and would have low operating costs.'
Borroni-Bird acknowledges there would be huge problems to overcome before the EN-V concepts could become reality. Power companies, governments and local authorities and communications firms would need to be involved and there would be tricky transitional periods while the new EN-V cars battled for road space with conventional vehicles.
GM's three concept cars don't even have suspension to deal with urban potholes and grates, and Borroni-Bird admits it would be 'a challenge' to design a system that would work with their two-wheeler layout. However, there are even bigger problems to overcome as urban populations and car usage grow if we do nothing, he says.