Revolutionary Segway pavement scooter runs out of road amid fears for America's health

By Andrew Gumbel
Tuesday 21 January 2003 01:00
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Remember the Segway, the mystery invention hailed not so long ago as the Next Big Thing then revealed to be a super hi-tech, environment-friendly scooter? No new-fangled gadget can boast even a fraction of the enthusiastic media coverage that accompanied the unveiling of the Segway's prototype, and yet, less than two months before its official launch, the urban vehicle to end all urban vehicles is running into considerable difficulties.

Selective testing of the Segway in cities around the United States has prompted a flurry of critical reports, including concern at the safety of old and disabled people who stumble into its path and the health implications of an overweight nation offered yet another excuse to stop walking.

Despite heavy lobbying, several states including New York and Texas have yet to enact legislation permitting the Segway on city pavements, where its inventors say it belongs. The president of the company launching the Segway has quit, suggesting growing discontent in the corporate ranks.

Perhaps most damagingly, the city of San Francisco – in theory, the ideal venue for a Segway because of its environmental consciousness, compact layout and steep hills disliked by pedestrians – yesterday introduced a blanket ban on Segway use on the pavements.

"There were statistics submitted to us about injuries, and the Segways themselves did not have adequate safety features to alert people they might be behind them," Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco supervisor who called for the ban, said. "The bloom is off the rose. I think a lot of it was ballyhoo. Now, with people looking at the practicality and cost and possible liabilities, I think they're abandoning their enthusiasm about it."

San Francisco was among the first places where municipal workers, notably postmen, were invited to try the Segway. Nobody disputes the machine is ingenious, with multiple gyroscopes and mini-computers that keep the user balanced, but it is also an 80lb (36kg) lump of metal that travels at three or four times the speed of other pavement users. And that has legislators worried, especially in cities with heavy pedestrian traffic, the very cities Segway had hoped to conquer first.

Although California has passed legislation permitting Segways on pavements, individual cities have the right to opt out. Aside from San Francisco, Oakland, Santa Cruz and Sacramento are considering bans. Los Angeles does not seem to have a problem with Segways, but nobody walks in LA, and in many neighbourhoods there are no pavements.

In Illinois, the state legislature left the Segway issue to individual cities. Chicago, the third biggest US city, has yet to pass an ordinance allowing the scooters on its pavements.

Segway LLC, as the production company is called, says the scooters have been tested for 100,000 hours in city streets without a single injury. But injury is only one of the concerns detractors have. A postman in Concord, New Hampshire, a city prone to severe cold, said he needed to keep moving in the winter months. "You can't keep warm if you're not walking," he said. "You end up like a frozen popsicle on a stick."

The Segway is the brainchild of Dean Kamen, a New Hampshire inventor also responsible for remarkable advances in medical technology. Two years ago he started the world gossiping about the Segway – then known by the codeword "Ginger" – thanks to enthusiastic endorsements from internet entrepreneur friends.

Rather like the dot.com bubble, the enthusiasm has since waned as it became clear the Segway's chances depended heavily on its lobbyists campaigning to permit the vehicle on city pavements. The thinking is that consumers will find it too dangerous on all but the most residential roadways.

There are haunting memories of Clive Sinclair's disastrous C-5 project, not an encouraging precedent.

The Segway will be launched in March, at first exclusively from Amazon.com at $5,000 (£3,100). Users will need hours of training before being allowed on pavements.

Inventions that fell to earth

HILLER FLYING PLATFORM

When it worked properly, this was a disc on which a man could stand and fly. Hiller Aviation of Palo Alto in California developed it in the Fifties with the US military. It was to be used to spot artillery or move troops. Below the platform a rotor generated the thrust. Landings were rough and only seven platforms were made. The project is long scrapped.

THE ROCKET BELT

Built in 1960 by Wendell Moore, it looked like the James Bond jet pack. Its hydrogen peroxide power generated bursts of steam that thrust it into the air. On one test, a man travelled 40 metres, three metres less than the Wright Brothers in 1903. Sadly, the fuel lasted only 21.5 seconds.

THE SINCLAIR C5

Inventor Sir Clive Sinclair unveiled the C5 in January, 1985. Three-wheeled, battery-powered, with a washing-machine motor, the C5 was an object of ridicule. Nobody would brave traffic in it and the battery lasted only a few miles. Sir Clive's dreams of selling hundreds of thousands vanished; Sinclair Vehicles was wound up 10 months after the launch.

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