image: Segway
In hues of silver and grey the Segway is as unusual looking as it is clever.
By
msnbc.com

I live 10 miles and one state away from my office. If there’s a New York City transit strike, I won’t be allowed to drive. And getting to an approved alternate means of transportation means a 4- to 5-mile walk at 5 a.m. So, I asked the Segway people if I could borrow a Segway and try it out.

InsertArt(1726811)THEY POLITELY SAID NO! I figured this would be a perfect test of just how well a “human transporter” would work on city streets. The Segway folks realized my request as a shameless chance to play with their device and explained there were a few reasons why they wouldn’t send me one to play with.

First, local officials here haven’t approved Segway’s use on city sidewalks. Many locations have done so already, but not New York. And Segway isn’t designed to compete for space on the roadway with cars, trucks and SUVs.

Then there’s the weather. Segway runs on batteries — very, very high-tech batteries, but batteries nonetheless. Cold weather zaps battery power, so this time of year Segway’s ultimate battery charge could be compromised. And finally, if there’s snow and ice on the ground, even the Segway’s specially-designed Michelin tires will slip and skid.

I was not deterred — so a compromise was reached. I couldn’t have a Segway for a day, but I could try one for a few minutes to get an idea of what it will be like to ride one on city streets. I jumped at the chance, and on a cold, almost-winter day, I got my chance to hop onto a Segway and drive it on a very deserted street in Manhattan’s art gallery district.

First a little background. Segway is the brainchild of genius inventor Dean Kamen and his team at DEKA Research and Development. For a year or so all we knew about Segway was that it was code-named “IT” or “GINGER” and had some very tight-lipped, well known industrialist backers. Now we know that it is unlike anything else that has come before it. Segway is an electric, gyroscopic, computer-controlled, two-wheeled personal transportation device. Kamen calls it an HT — or human transporter — capable of dynamic stabilization.

Segway looks like a combination of a pogo stick and bathroom scale — a conveyance idea stolen from the Jetsons. Basically you step on the platform - hold on to the handlebars - and lean forward or back. That’s it, except for the little twisty-control to make Segway turn left or right. On the outside, it’s a very, very simplistic device. You know what that means — on the inside there’s a whole lot going on.

SEGWAY BY THE NUMBERS

Its footprint is 19 by 25 inches. The platform you stand on is 8 inches off the ground. The “i Series” weighs 83 pounds and can carry a 250 pound rider. There’s another Segway, the “e Series” transporter which weighs 95 pounds and can carry an additional 75 pounds of cargo. The no-memory, high-tech, nickel metal-hydride batteries charge from any AC outlet. They take 6 hours from a full discharge, but a lot less if you plug Segway in after every ride. Figure on getting 11 to 15 miles per charge depending on wind, terrain, speed, etc.

When you’re aboard a Segway you realize that it takes up just about the same amount of space on the planet as you do. That means people really don’t have to jump out of the way when you’re approaching. It also means a number of Segway riders on a sidewalk probably wouldn’t bump into each other unless they really wanted to. The most amazing thing about Segway is the turning radius — there is none. Without a Segway you can pivot on your feet and turn around — with a Segway you pivot on your wheels and do the same thing.

Segway comes with three keys to start it up. The black key is for beginners limiting you to 6 miles per hour.

image: Segway display
The Segway's only display -- the smiling face icon says it's ready and the green light says go.
The yellow key is for sidewalk travel at speeds up to 9 mph. The red key is for open spaces — and maximum speeds up to 12.5 mph. During my testing I was very, very glad we used the black key.

The only control to look at is a little LED screen with a sort of green smiley face when Segway is turned on and a red smiley face when Segway is going to sleep or waking up. There’s a circle or black lines around the smiley face which inform you of your batteries’ charge.

THE RIDE

I was warned before I arrived that Segway attracts a crowd. Boy is that an understatement! I chose a fairly-deserted street for the test run but it didn’t matter. Cars slowed down and everybody stopped to watch and ask questions. I mean everybody! Young, old and everyone in between. Segway is a people magnet and everyone wanted to watch it in action and try it for themselves. But, it was my turn. My 20 minutes of fame and I wasn’t going to share the experience with anyone (except for you, of course).

In a word, wow! Segway doesn’t really do anything on its own. What it does is constantly read where you are standing on the platform and how far you are leaning forward or back then computes what it has to do and propels you. There is the uncanny feeling that it is doing the thinking for you. All you do is look forward and lean slightly. Segway does the rest. The sensation is amazing! After a few minutes you realize that this thing can actually move you at speeds twice as fast as you can walk. Don’t forget, that’s just with the beginner key!

Could I see myself using Segway to get around New York? Absolutely! In the beginning I might have to dodge large numbers of gawkers, but over time I’m sure they’ll become commonplace — at least in large urban areas. Overall, I want one. It’s nothing like riding a bicycle, motorcycle or motorscooter. It’s something entirely unique.

I think the $4,950.00 price is somewhat high. I understand there’s a lot of technology going on inside and that early adapters always pay a premium for the honor of being the first on the block. But, five grand is a lot of money. I’m hoping that prices might lower a little soon - and that New York politicians will come to their senses and allow these things on our sidewalks.

I intend to bother the Segway people again next week if I’m housebound because of the strike. I think riding a Segway would be the best way to get around the gridlock being predicted. But, in reality it will just be an excuse to get back on and ride it again. After 20 minutes my mind is made up. I want one. Now, if I could just figure out a way to put the bill on my expense account.

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