TCS Daily


The Worst Gift Idea of the Holiday Season

By Brock Yates - December 21, 2001 12:00 AM

Here we go again. Yet another mechanical miracle guaranteed to break the American love affair with the automobile. Following limited success via mass-transit buses and light rail, bicycles, jogging shoes and assorted urban people-movers, we now have the Segway HT as the latest antidote to shatter our century-old habit of relying on the ol' flivver in the garage for routine travel.

In case you've missed the rhapsodized coverage of the Segway HT by the elite media -which never misses a chance to remind us that our automobiles are our greatest enemy -the Segway HT ("Human Transport") also known as "Ginger" is a gadget that can turn a couch potato into an Olympic sprinter with the twist of the wrist. "Hey, was that Donovan Bailey crossing the intersection?" "Naw; Rosie O'Donnell on the way to the studio."

Consider that the Segway HT, which looks like your neighbor's power mower without the blade and the bag, will haul a normal-sized biped at speeds up to 12.5 mph, which is roughly three times the velocity attained in normal walking. An impressive pace, which can be maintained for up to 17 miles before re-charging the battery.

It's presumably operable by anybody smart enough to grip the handlebars. Lean forward and it moves ahead. The more you lean, the faster you go. Same for reverse. A twist of the hand and the Segway will turn on a dime. It will not tip over. It's all in the gyroscopes and tilt sensors that make up what its creators call "Dynamic stabilization."

Dean Kamen, the inventor and leader of the Segway design team headquartered in environmentally aware Manchester, NH, is one bright guy. He holds over 150 patents in the fields of medical devices, climate control systems and helicopter technology. This is his first crack at ground-based transportation, based on the conventional wisdom that the automobile is a lousy people hauler in urban situations where 80% of the world's population hangs out.

So Kamen, backed by big investors Credit Suisse and First Boston and aligned with industrial giants like Delphi Automotive, IBM, GE Plastics, Michelin, etc. set out to create a device that won't make the car smaller, but the pedestrian larger - at least in the context of mobility.

Kamen & Co. reckon that every day Americans drive 1.35 billion miles on trips of five miles or less. If only 10% of those miles were traveled with Segway HT's, maybe 6.2 million gallons of gasoline - or 2.6 billion gallons per year would be saved. And of course the environment, air quality, urban space, etc. would also benefit.

Great idea. On the computer screen. Imagine hundreds of thousands of citizens zipping along the sidewalks of America's major cities on spindly little Segways. A beautiful vision, right? Now think of Beijing or New Delhi, where insect-like swarms of bicycles sluice along the major thoroughfares. Think about the last time you dodged a kid blazing down a big city sidewalk on a 10-speed. Think about the center cities of Athens, Rome and a hundred other European towns where automobiles have been supplanted by screeching mobs of motor scooters. Filthy, noisy, crude little beasts compared to the Segway HT, but similar in theme and mission. And don't think about one-handing a Segway while clutching an umbrella in Seattle or Portland or donning a snowmobile suite for winter travel in Chicago or Boston. And don't think about the added strain on the already-over loaded electrical power grid when millions of Segways plug in for a re-charge every day. (Remember, at the end of every electric-powered-vehicle fantasy stands a smokestack.)

The Segway HT is a thoroughly ingenious device. But so was the General Motors EV1 electric car that turned out to be a hopeless failure. Short range, low power and absurd battery recharging cycles killed it. The Segway may have terrific potential for postal delivery, warehouse mobility, law enforcement, theme park touring, etc. and a bright future in developing countries, although supplanting the lighter, cheaper bicycle and the faster motor scooter may be difficult, especially at a proposed cost of about $3000.00.

The technical brilliance of a concept does not assure success. Example: The Honda Insight hybrid will get over 50 miles per gallon in city driving with ease. It is tiny, quick and nimble. It is the cleanest mass-produced vehicle on earth. Environmentalists celebrated it as a breakout automobile. The media was charmed by it. It is a relatively cheap (about $20,000), reliable, weatherproof, comfortable commuter vehicle. It will run 100 mph on the highway and still get over 40 mpg. It will carry two passengers rather than one. It is the best urban automobile available along with its larger, slower four-seat rival, the Toyota Prius. Yet the Insight, for all its environmental wonderment, has sold only 4,000 units in America this year. But Honda planned on moving 6500 of the little beauties, meaning that on-paper enthusiasm for this environmentally friendly vehicle far surpasses its marketplace appeal.

Were I a member of Mr. Kamen's talented team, I would be advising him to take a very hard look at the Honda experience before I geared up for really big production.

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