Saturday, November 20, 2004

Have Segway, will travel

While walking down Beacon Street in Boston yesterday, a man on a Segway zipped by me. This was the first time I had seen one of these vehicles up close. I was startled at first because he had approached me from behind and glided past. There was no engine whine. No puff of choking exhaust. Just a smooth silence. He effortlessly weaved through the other pedestrians, turned the corner and sailed off down Cambridge Street. I stood agape at the corner and watched him trundle away on his two-wheeled transport. Wow. I want one.

The Segway Human Transporter was introduced with much fanfare in 2001. Almost immediately the public and the mainstream media responded to Dean Kamen's invention with derision. $4000 for just a fancy scooter? Get real.

It always rankled me that Kamen didn't get more recognition for what I think is a remarkable bit of engineering.

The Segway is self-balancing. Imagine yourself straddling a motionless bicycle; you are constantly adjusting the pedals, handlebars and your own body to keep it in balance. A Segway's computer and gyroscopes do all that for you, instantly. Once you mount a Segway, it will not allow you to fall off.

The Segway is controlled via body motion. Lean forward, it moves forward. Lean back, it switches to reverse. Corners are made by leaning from side to side. It's almost like magic.

So what? Just get a bicycle or walk, they say. It's far cheaper. That's where I believe most people are missing the point of the Segway. It's not an alternative to a bicycle. Most adults don't ride bikes anymore anyway. Nor do they walk distances further than 600 feet. What it is is an efficient and non-polluting alternative to a second car. And by that comparison, it's also cheaper.