SEGUE TO SEGWAY: TWO WHEELS GOOD, FOUR WHEELS B-A-A-A-A-D

4 Jan

Walking is a great way to get around. And for longer distances, driving is a good idea, too. Or used to be. Fifty year old Dean Kamen, an eccentric bachelor believes he has a better idea for the middle ground of “getting around.” Kamen, the multimillionaire who invented a stair climbing wheelchair, decided its time society replaces four wheels with two.  

Taking a page from futuristic cartoon, The Jetsons, Kamen designed his 100th plus patent, the Segway Human Transporter, HT, a motorized upscale adult scooter Kamen shills as the next big thing for getting people from Point A to Point B. Kamen sold investors his vision of a world where Segway empowers people to replace cars. Flocks of people, Kamen touts, will ride Segways en masse, bar hopping around town, reducing car congestion, smog, and replacing fuel dependent travel with his svelte battery powered people movers, projected to net him a $1 billion slice of the $300 billion transportation industry. Already, clusters of coffee klatching Sunday Segway drivers, modest versions of the “future according to Dean”, clog DC sidewalks, at M Street and 20th, and other metropolis like San Diego and New York.

Shortly after diminutive Kamen boasted Segways are “safer than walking,” Washington based Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled them. CPSC announced three riders were injured because Segway’s battery power was so low, it may not have had enough power to remain upright. One midtown mid 60’s female Segway’er, offered no comment hearing a rider, involved in the recall, suffered severe head trauma requiring stitches. DEKA, maker of Segway Human Transporter, responded to the CPSC, recalling over 6,000 motorised transporters. Ron Medford, senior CPSC official, had proclaimed Segway has “safety features that are far more substantial than we normally see in a consumer product–features closer to those associated with medical devices.” Segway released safety statistics citing Seattle had only one flat tire in their 10 Segway fleet, in one year. Segway’s french partner, Kelios, laid off their repairman, reporting no technical failures in one year of operating their 90 Segway fleet. Medford, since taking a sabbatical at DEKA, offered no comment to his still being on the government payroll,

Segways do have limitations. They hold single riders. They cannot negotiate large potholes, big branches or slippery surfaces. They cannot leap buildings in a single bound or even smaller curbs. Unless there is a disabled curb dip to ride down, riders must get off and walk Segway across the street. Segways seem to handle cobblestones and sidewalks fairly well. On the right surfaces, they travel silent and smooth, presenting potential danger for hearing impaired, visually impaired, physically impaired pedestrians unable to timely notice the approaching machine. The two wheeled scooter sensors respond to body weights, forward and backwards, similar to riding a boogie board on snow. Direction changes occur by rotating handgrips. Kamen, before President Bush was photographed falling dramatically to the ground from the Segway he was riding, said the five gyroscopes inside the scooter assured greater success maintaining it upright, less likely to fall over. GaryBridge, Segway’s marketing chief says, it is inevitable someone is going to kill himself on one. “I dread that day.” “There are some very deep pockets around this thing,” remarks Andy Grove. “I fear this could be a litigation lightning rod.” Segway was developed at a cost of more than $100 million. In fact, Segway was sold to government regulators before the product was debuted to the public.

Kamen and his team approached legislators, Sen. Roger Breske (D-Eland) and Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greenfield) in 2001, to develop laws protecting Segway, “electronic personal assistive mobility devices.” Stone explained “The people who invented Segway were interested in having them used around the country so they approached legislators through lobbyists. When they first approached me, it was before they had even introduced the Segway.” The legislature passed “Wisconsin Act 90,” sponsored in the Senate. Wisconsin Act 90 regarded Segways like bicycles, allowing them on sidewalks, trails and roads where the speed limit is 25 mph or less. Though in hindsight, Stone suggested the government may have been oversold on Segway’s potential, “I think they’re great. They’re not quite as big a deal as proposed when they were introduced. They may not revolutionize mobility, but they have a unique role to play in transportation and they’re something I think we’re going to see a lot more of as time progresses.” Stone found the machine easy to board and operate. “You can almost run head on into somebody and be able to stop before you hit them,” he chortled.

In order to ensure Segways continue to move alongside pedestrians, Kamen’s regulatory-affairs attack dogs continue their fight keeping the machine from being classified either as a motor vehicle or as a scooter, or as OHSA wanted  to label it, a “powered industrial truck.” Regulating it as an “electronic personal assistive mobility devices,” qualifies it under pedestrian, not motor vehicle law.

Kamen’s Segway marketing plan addressed accessing Segways on to commuter trains arguing Segways are regulated by guidelines for motorized wheelchairs for the handicapped. DC’s Metro restricts Segways from buses and the Underground during weekday peak hours excepting if the machine is used disabled rider providing a doctor’s medical proof then certified by Metro.

Act 90 providing for local governments to preclude the people-movers use in certain areas. Regulations under issue, varying city to city and state to state., are helmet requirements, mandatory training on vehicle operation, insurance, licensure and age requirement to operate the machines. State law condones their being operated on sidewalks. Cities individually regulate its use. San Francisco banned it from sidewalks. Nevada permits the segways used on theirs. Segway spokesperson Carla Vallone, responding to an irate pedestrian called them people-mowers, claims new owners are put through rigorous safety and sidewalk sharing training. Vallone did not address possible road rage becoming an issue with Segways sidewalk use.

Kamen says he will be capable of churning out 40,000 Segways a month, at DEKA’s newly built 77,0000 sq ft factory, ManchesterNew Hampshire headquarters. All he has to do is find buyers. Kamen targeted deep pocketed government agencies as potential first customers for his $8,000 industrial Segway. He strategized rollout out his lower priced Human Transporter to the consumer market, after defining Segway “standard practice” through use by police, postmen and rangers, thereby making government use the rule of law for consumer use. Consumers could claim, “The government is doing it, so can we.” Government agencies, including the U.S. Postal Service, National Parks Service, General Electric, and enforcement agencies, are test marketing Segways. Seattle’s Department of Fleets and Facilities tested Segways for meter reading and collecting parking meter change. NYC police tested 12 machines over a two year period. Chicago and Atlanta police continue to use them for “glide-patrols” at airports.

Cogent agencies, like United States Capitol Police, USCP, rented Segway Human Transporters for a trial period. Current USCP Media Officer substantiated earlier statements made by former USCP Media Officer Jessica Gissubel. Gissubel had said, “laws are being addressed, at this time, concerning the increasing use of Segways on DC sidewalks. Capitol grounds have their own regs. USCPolice recently began reviewing DC Code to determine grounds for new Policy.” Gissubel, unaware if current laws regulate scooters on sidewalks, said, “The Department is unaware, at this time, of accidents involving Segways.” Capitol Police carefully selected 6 officers, from the House division, to participate in the Segway trial, petite female officers and large male officers, to test the durability of the machine. The officers took the Segway five hour training course. Capitol Police Segway test began September 17, 2002, ending November 12, 2002. The Department rented Segways for their trial period, at a cost of $350 a machine, per month. Even if DEKA, Segways’s manufacturer, had offered machines for free or at a discount, the Department could not have accepted the offer, bound by the same gift accepting restrictions Senators, Congressmen, even the President must abide by. Congressional employees cannot accept donations. The total cost of the rentals, for the test, was a modest $1,400. Gissubel stated the Department reviewed participating officers reports at the completion of the trial period. The officers did not feel Segway worked operationally for their jurisdiction, limiting the officers with regards to interior stairs and elevators, and with exterior stairs and obstacles. The cost logic of mountain bikes versus Segways weighed heavily in the Department’s decision. Mountain bikes cost $600 per unit mountain bike; Segways cost $5000 per unit. USCP officers preferred their manueverability ease and speed potential on mountain bikes. Segways are limited to 12.5 miles per hour. All written recommendations noted battery powered Segways don’t last the 8 hour shift. “Every day Capitol Police are looking for new things and how to do it better,” Gissubel said. Noting the recall of Segway’s, Gissubel just smiled.

Creative uses for the machine, even Kamen did not dream of, pop up daily. Universities, seeking to seduce applicants, are offering Segway guided college tours. Mike’s Bike Tours in Paris, France conducts 70 euros four hour Segway tours. Former IT exec, DC entrepreneur Bill Main, explaining Kamen’s philosophy for Segway was an alternative for short distance commute.   Main, deciding Segways are human transporters of the District’s future became a Segway distributor, personally conducting Segway safaris throughout DC’s concrete jungle.

Main promotes his District Segway tours in local parades including 2005’s DC Cherry Blossom Festival and Memorial Day parade. Main explains qualifying the machine at greater than 15 miles per hour would Main impresses Kamen designed the human transporter machine to be viewed in the context of a disabled individual’s mobility aid, thereby restricting the machine to sidewalk and pedestrian rules. Bells, Main says, are not in the philosophy of the machine although there is an option for bells. Kamen, the machine’s inventor, recently made the machines noisier, addressing complaints the machines stealth approach was of risk to pedestrians not hearing the machine approaching.

Main requires his riders comply with DC law, placing it in a motorized vehicle category, subject to rules of the road, rather than the targeted motorized wheelchair category subject to rules of the sidewalk. Main insures Segway riders under his expanded business insurance noting individual Segway owners are insured under their home insurance. Segway Safari riders may not weigh more than 260 pounds, must wear helmets and must take a 15 minute machine tutorial on handling the machine. Main charges $45 an hour per individual for a 1 hour Safari ride, $70 for 2 hours, offering discounts for groups of more than 6 people. Guides are provided upon request. Segway renters are then turned loose on DC sidewalks and streets, traveling at a maximum of 12.5 miles per hour.

Big bellied oldsters are finding their expensive two wheeled wonders grab looks and phone numbers from younger women admiring the machine’s sleek lines and the man’s seemingly sizeable wallets. Segway may not make it all the way into the financially struggling American’s psyche but a Segway induced latte, for an old guy, can go along way. Or, as they have become, the unlicensed, one video trained, posh tourist method of choice to explore the District.

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