Segwaying Into the Future
By Bill Moore
Ride a Segway and chances are you'll get stared at. While more and people are incorporating them into their daily routine, either at work or for fun, they are still largely a curiosity.
But, what they are not is inefficient.
Segway estimates its Human Transporter gets something on the order of 450 miles per gallon... if they burned gasoline. They don't. Instead, they are some of the world's more efficient electric-drive vehicles and the new model i180 series just got even better.
Introduced earlier this month, the i180 now comes with the option of Valence Saphion(tm) lithium-ion batteries that double the range of the Segway Human Transporter.
To learn more about this next generation of self-balancing, two-wheeled wonders, I talked to Klee Kleber, Segway LLC's vice president for marketing and Doug Fields, the company's chief engineer and a long-time EV World reader.
Wanted: An All-Day Battery
I started by asking Fields to talk about what changes they've made to the i180 series. He began by talking about increasing the available energy in the i180's battery pack.
"The first thing that we've done is basically double the amount of energy we carry on board the machine through a brand new lithium technology made by Valence called Saphion(tm). We chose that technology because it has the highest levels of safety we've ever seen in a lithium product and still has the very high energy levels that we need. That basically doubles the range of an i-Series HT and takes it up to about twenty-five miles in very good conditions; and allows a whole new host of applications. Our commercial customers [have] really been asking for extended range. They like the product and they want to use it more".
Not only does the i-Series benefit from having more energy available, but the new Valence batteries have enabled Segway to introduce a new off-road model called the XT, which Fields told me has a "solid" (i.e., conservative) 10 mile range in off-road conditions. They have replaced the narrow, high-pressure Michelin tires with large, wide, knobby, low-pressure tires.
Another major change is largely cosmetic, the introduction to new colors: midnight blue, red, and yellow on the fenders.
Kleber picked up on the vehicle energy issue explaining that many of Segway's customers are institutions that use the machines in security, police and industrial applications. He pointed out that what they have been wanting is an "all-day" battery that will enable the operator to use the machine through a complete eight-hour shift. He said that he is now confident the new lithium-ion batteries from Valence will provide that capability, or "close to it".
He also said that retail customers have also been asking for extended range, so they can get wider use of the machine. Segway has designed the new battery pack so it can be retrofitted on earlier i-Series models with a simple battery swap and firmware upgrade available at authorized Segway dealers.
Additionally, the new battery will give the Segway GT model the ability to complete up to 36 holes of golf with 18 holes pretty much assured.
The basic i-Series is priced at $4495 with an additional $500 premium for the lithium ion upgrade. The XT will cost $4495 and the GT with larger tires, golf bag attachment and Valence batteries will cost $5495, just about the cost of a new golf cart.
Segway Safety Paramount
I asked both men if they had any concerns about the safety of large format lithium batteries, a battery chemistry with a history of "thermal runaway" in which the batteries catch fire and melt at the temperature of hot lava.
"Lithium has been slow to be adapted into mobile technologies for that reason", Fields replied. "Very consistent with our philosophy at Segway is safety is always the highest priority in any product development program. Valence has sort of founded their entire company on having a high energy lithium cell that does not have those same failure modes associated with it if the battery is crushed or during recharge is overheated. So, it was really a perfect match for where we wanted to take the product".
Both men also wanted to stress that their range numbers are "real world". They said that the models with NiMH batteries get between 8-12 miles per charge and the new lithium models will get 16-25 miles. They also told me that unlike other battery chemistries that begin to lose energy as outside ambient air temperature drops towards freezing, lithium batteries will continue to perform well down to 15 degree F (-9.4 C).
Evolution of A Marketing Plan
Kleber explained to me that for the first year after its 2001 introduction, Segway focused primarily on commercial demonstrations and sales. Then through its alliance with Amazon.Com in 2002, it began consumer sales, generally attracting early technology adopters.
"Starting about this time last year", he continued, "we began rolling out a dealer network in the US that brought us some new market segments we'd not addressed before". He added that on the consumer side, the product has been popular with seniors. On the commercial end, the company is continuing to target applications in the industrial arena, as well as in law enforcement, security and with the military. Segway's marketing team is using targeted marketing venues from direct mail to on-site product demonstrations.
"We understand that mass adoption of this technology is a long term play, so we think we're on a good path now to go after these targeted markets, build it up, build the momentum over time and eventually we end up with mass adoption at some point out in the future", Kleber said.
Solution Looking For a Problem?
Like so many people who have tried the Segway, I love it. It's incredibly intuitive, besides being amazingly efficient. But also like many people, I keep wondering is this a solution, as elegant and sophisticated as it is, looking for a problem? So, I put it to Klee Kleber.
"We've got market segments now that have problems the product has solved for them already. It gives you an agility benefit that you don't get in a lot of other transportation products. It easily integrates into pedestrian environments, crowded environments", he responded. He gave the example of a maintenance worker who might use a golf cart to get around the plant in order to do maintenance. Often the cart won't let him get close enough, whereas a p-Series Segway with its attached tool bags can let him or her get right up next to the work site, enhancing their productivity.
"There's a guy that I like to bring up... whose job is changing light bulbs in a large resort. That's the only thing he does. It took him eight hours a day. They put him on a Segway and he does it in less than an hour. I think about that kind of productivity benefit. You're not getting that from other products; and the reason you're not getting it from other products is the agility benefit from dynamic stabilization and the design activity that the team put into making the product very easy to integrate and safely operate in pedestrian environments".
Doug Fields interjected that the "solution-looking-for-a-problem" question has always been an obstacle to the introduction new technologies.
"When you go back in history and look at some prominent quotes around the telephone that says it's an interesting little invention, but of little useful value. Airplanes were stated to be of little military value early when they were brought out. And I think that all these technologies tend to get that question and it's up to us to find those applications where they really are meaningful and helpful.
"One of the ways I look at it", Fields continued, "is if it wasn't important for humans to stand up on two legs, they wouldn't do it. It wouldn't have happened in evolution; and what we're trying to do is take wheeled transportation into a level of intelligence that matches that of humans and allows it to interact with us".
Making Short Car Trips Obsolete... Not Walking
The next obvious objection often raised by skeptics is one that says using devices like the Segway only makes walking obsolete and encourages obesity because people will walk less.
"We think it makes short car trips obsolete", Kleber adroitly replied. "That's been our way to think about it, so far. I look at our customer base and see how active they are. The average Segway customer is heavily into sports and heavily into being active. They might integrate an HT into that activity, but it's certainly not replacing that they're using to stay in shape. This is not a product we've seen that is appealing to people who want to be lazy..."
Fields added, "The goal is to provide a more efficient means of moving around so that people will have more options of what to do with their time. I am sure everyone could get a lot more exercise by carrying their clothes down to the river and beating them on the rock... That's what we're really trying to do is create the efficiency that gives people in cities more choices.
Is Paris Segwaying?
One of the most exciting growth areas for Segway sales is the tourism industry where savvy operators are renting the machines out to tourist from the Florida Keys to the avenues of Paris. Kleber thinks there are at least a half dozen European capitals where tourists can rent Segways. He wasn't sure of the exact number because many are newly formed, independent operators with whom Segway LLC has not had direct contact.
"We've been beefing up our efforts in that area in the last six to nine months", Kleber stated, adding that they are setting up dealerships across Europe where sales have been quite bullish recently. "Their cities have been designed before the car, so you see traffic congestion, pollution concerns driving people to other transportation devices. If you look at trips people make in the US, eighty-five percent of them are in cars. In Europe that number is between thirty and fifty percent, and the remainder are walking, biking, [and] public transportation. So, they are much more use to alternate forms of transportation. We think the Segway HT fits right into that infrastructure very well".
Fields added that Segway does provide support materials to dealers to help them promote safe riding among their buyers and renters. Also, Segways have two sets of keys, one that allows low speed operation at 6 mph and one that permits speeds up to 12 mph. Dealers and tour operators can control how fast the rider drives the machine based on individual skill and local conditions.
On the issue of local ordinances impacting the operation of Segways, the company has been surprisingly successful in getting measures passed that have legalized their use on either sidewalks or streets, though there have been notable holdouts like New York and San Francisco. From Kleber's perspective, one of his team's jobs is to educate regulators and city officials about the machine and how safe it is. Again, they realize that it will take time for people to understand the capabilities of the device.
Sincerest Form of Flattery
At $4500 to $5000 a pop, the Segway isn't attracting large, mass market sales, but it has spurred imitators who offer machines that resemble the Segway and sell for a fraction of the cost. I asked Fields what he thought about this.
As you might expect, he responded "certainly imitation is one of the most sincere forms of flattery", but he also pointed out that none of these devices carry the core of the Segway's technology, dynamic stabilization.
"As a result, they don't have many of the benefits the product has. Turning in place is one, but even more significantly is the intuitive interface that is so much a part of the experience; the ability to lean forward and backward. You don't get that unless you have dynamic stabilization. So, imitators that put four wheels on the product, just plain can't do that.
"The other thing that we've seen, and I think it's typical of the low end of the electric vehicle market is that these products are just not engineered products. They can't be driven over puddles. They short out. They're not powerful enough to climb even the gentlest of hills coming out of driveways and on sidewalks. So, as a result, they're not particularly useful as day-to-day transportation. They are really more of a toy-type application; whereas we've really intended to engineer our product with that technology, but with durability and reliability so that it really can be used for everyday tasks", Fields commented.
Kleber added, "One piece of data I'll add to that is the research we've done on our customers says that the average customer rides it more than once a day. The people that buy Segways are buying them to use them. They don't get parked in the corner of the garage. That contrasts heavily with what you see with a lot of the small electric vehicles that are starting to proliferate [in] the market".
In the Fall of 2003, Segway instituted a product recall to address a problem in which, under certain conditions, the machine would suddenly fall over, risking serious injury to the rider.
I asked Fields to explain the nature of the problem and how his team solved it.
He explained that the key to dynamic stabilization is the ability to "put power to the ground quickly". This is what keeps the machine and its rider always upright.
"We found in a small number of circumstances that batteries could develop some characteristics that did not allow them to produce sufficient enough energy such that a combination of environmental situations, like hitting a bump or cold temperatures and aggressive rider behavior could result in the machine tipping over.
"What that could have been positioned as 'ride differently'", he told me, "what we were able to do is basically invent a change to the technology, a change that was able to go into the software and firmware that was able to detect the presence of a battery that had deteriorated in this way and compensate for that by encouraging the rider to slow down. Or, if the battery was really in severe shape, it actually brings the machine to a stop and asks the rider to get off.
"So, in the position of knowing that this could happen, and even more importantly, that there's something that we can do about it, and that our product can be updated so quickly with a firmware revision, we thought the right thing to do was immediately go to work with the CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) and get the word out [so] we could get as many of our customers as possible to upgrade to the new software to make sure that they never, ever saw that problem".
With respect to the current NiMH batteries, Fields reports that owners should get between 300 to 500 charge-discharge cycles out of their packs; the difference being how carefully the owner cares for the batteries in terms of at what temperatures the batteries are operated, etc. He expects at least the same level of cycle life from the Valence Saphions, if not more; and of course, the vehicle will be able to go twice the distance, effectively doubling the useful life of the vehicle before having to replace the pack.
Beyond the HT?
According to both Kleber and Fields, Segway is committed to continuous improvement of the HT in terms of performance and reliability, as well as eventual cost reductions, though Kleber said that those would come over the time frame of years, not months, as pieces of the core technology came down in price. Fields noted that accelerometers when they first came out were very expensive. Now they cost $1, largely because of economies of scale made possible by the introduction of automobile airbags.
The company is also actively adapting its dynamic stabilization technology to robotic applications in the military and university setting; and its Centaur four-wheeler was developed to explore the potential of mixing both static stabilization and dynamic stabilization. Fields explained that where the HT is like a helicopter, the Centaur is more akin to the Harrier Jump Jet, able to morph as the situation requires from being able to climb steep terrain using dynamic stabilization to high-speed travel on all four wheels.
He cited the growing use of gyros in automotive stability systems to prevent roll-overs, and the growth of high-power electronics and advanced batteries for hybrid vehicles as eventually helping Segway also bring down its costs.
"All these tends that are bringing us to more intelligent and more environmentally-responsible transportation are going to benefit us as well".