Segway to Where?
By Bill Moore
Without question, Dean Kamen's Segway (the personal mobility machine formerly known as "Ginger" or "It") is a 21st century engineering tour de force, and its also a heck of a lot of fun to drive. You can tell that from the beaming smiles of the folks lucky enough to get their hands on one.
The blue jeans-clad Kamen and his Segway team were on hand with a half dozen of his two-wheel EVs at the 2002 National Clean Cities conference in Oklahoma City last month. They not only demonstrated the device, but also allowed hundreds of the conference goers to try their hand at operating one in a large room adjacent to the exhibit hall. I was one of the first in line to give it a go and here's what I learned.
The Segway comes in two basic models, an HT model with larger wheels than the smaller, soon-to-be-released consumer version. The HT model itself is available in an "i" and "e" version, the former for maximum range and terrain, the later for hauling cargo. The HT is designed for use by warehouse workers, parts runners, mail carriers, the policeman on a beat. It's going price ranges from $8,000 to $10,000, the price of a small car, a couple NEVs or 80 cheap bicycles.
It weighs just 83 pounds (38kg) and has a range of about 17 miles on its NiHM battery pack. The top speed can be programmed into the electronic key. The versions available for the Ride & Drive in Oklahoma were limited to 5 mph. Top speed is 12.5 mph, about the average speed of traffic in downtown Tokyo or Manhattan.
According to the Segway web site, the company designed the machine to take up no more room than the average human, about 3.2 square feet. And by Kamen's account, Segway is even more efficient than a human. He estimates the average human being uses about 100 watts of energy to walk, while the Segway uses 40.
The less expensive consumer version is slated to go on sale in late 2002. It resembles the HT model in virtually every way except the wheels are somewhat smaller and I understand it will come with NiCad batteries instead of NiMH.
So, what's it like to "drive" one?
|It's surprisingly easy and requires virtually no effort. About 60 seconds of instruction is all that's needed. You step up on the platform, which is about 8 inches off the ground.|
Segway's simple controls
The key thing to remember about driving the Segway is to not think about it! Segway's engineers designed the device with two liquid sensors and five solid state gyroscopes. The system is so sensitive that it instantly detects the slightest shift in your weight. To go forward, you don't actually lean, you just "think" forward and the Segway responds. The same applies to going backward or stopping. You simply "think" backward or stop and the machine complies.
The Segway folks explain it this way. The electronics on the two-wheeler are designed to mimic a human walking. When we walk, we are actually falling forward and catching ourselves. After the age of about 2, we pretty much do this without even thinking about it. The Segway was designed to take advantage of this. It is one of the most intuitive machines I've ever come across, including a bicycle.
To turn left or right, there is a small toggle switch on the left handlebar. Move it left and you stop the left wheel motor, while continuing to rotate the right, pivoting the machine on its own central axis. You do the same to turn right. Segway will just about turn on the proverbial dime.
Recharging is accomplished by pulling a cord out of the machine's base and plugging it into a conventional 110 volt wall socket in North America. I didn't ask about the recharge time, but I suspect its several hours, at least, depending on the state-of-charge.
One development that is currently in the works is a self-balancing feature. At present, you have to deploy a small "kick stand" to keep the vehicle upright. The new control system will do this automatically. Imagine walking up to a Segway that just seems to hover there, nodding ever so slightly in the breeze. It will be positively eerie!
But as much fun as the Segway clearly is, nearly everyone I spoke to at the conference isn't really sure where it fits. There are lots of tests going on around the US. Postmen delivering mail, cops "walking" beats, even the US Park Service has agreed to give them a go. Still everyone keeps coming back to the central question, "where does this machine fit"? $8,000 nearly will buy you a couple GEMs or Th!nk neighbors, or six to eight electric bicycles.
Seway HT model features Michelin tires
|Dean Kamen will argue that it can replace the car for short trips within congested urban environments, and that may be true in certain situations, but what do you do in the Winter in New York City or Minneapolis?|
Still, there's got to be a market for something so brilliantly efficient and positively fun.
One application where I can see it fitting is on the famous Las Vegas Strip. During Comdex or many of the other heavily attended conferences, I can see people renting it by the thousands just to get around those expansive conference floors or back and forth between to their hotels. If you've ever tried to walk from New York-New York to Circus, Circus, you know what I mean. It's a real hike.
Interestingly, to date, Segway lawyers have succeeded in getting 22 states to permit its use on city sidewalks. Not bad for a product that just came out a few months ago.
Imagine for a moment, if every night at sunset just as the Bellagio's fountains and The Mirage's fireworks lit up, the city closed off the entire Strip to all vehicular traffic except NEVs and Segways. Imagine cruising down the Strip with your spouse, friend or colleague casino, restaurant or show-hopping. And it wouldn't be just young kids doing it. This machine is so intuitive and easy to learn, I could even thousands of those ubiquitous blue-haired slot queens riding them and enjoying every moment of it.
Now that would be worth seeing... and experiencing!
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