Is Segway the Sinclair C5 of its generation?

The Segway Human Transporter - a hi-tech scooter - was unveiled to a waiting world on Monday. "Is that it?" asked one of the presenters of ABC TV's Good Morning America. The disappointment could be cut with a knife. Why? Because this invention is the one hyped since January as "bigger than the internet". Long before its unveiling, Apple's Steve Jobs was reported to have said cities of the future would be redesigned around this contraption, now seen to be of possible value to porky US postal workers but too dorky for everyone else...
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The Segway scooter looks like a Dyson hoover with oversize wheels. It made it on to today's BBC Newsround but was first shown on yesterday's Good Morning America.

The Segway has been hyped since January, with Silicon Valley abuzz with rumours of how an invention by wunderkind Dean Kamen (he's a rich wunderkind, having invented lots of medical equipment) would revolutionise 'personal transportation'.

However, the cynics over at The Register, the internet newspaper, have long held that the hype over 'Project Ginger' was just that: the Segway, once revealed, would be just a souped-up scooter.

And so it turned out to be.

It's a clever scooter, mind. It uses microprocessors and gyroscopes to know where you want to go, when you want to go and when you want to stop. How does it do this? Er, you lean, just like on a bicycle. (God forbid you should sneeze on a Segway, though, you'd be under a truck!)

No doubt a future use will be found for the technology on this most unJetsonian of devices but, for today at least, it is being derided by media outlets around the world.

For a start, the device only has a top speed of 17 mph - slower than most cyclists - and it's unclear where you'd ride them. Illegal on the pavement; suicidal on the road.

It isn't even propelled by fuel-cell technology: it's battery-driven. It's also heavy and looks stupid (but no doubt that's what cynics said about the first bicycle).

Yet £65m has been lavished on its development (Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com put up some of the funding), and the Harvard Business School Press reportedly paid $250 000 for a Dean Kamen book on Segway's birth before it even knew what 'Project Ginger' was all about.

The US Postal Service is said to be a likely customer for Segway fleets, and after seeing TV pictures of Washington DC postal workers during the coverage of the Anthrax scares, there's probably a good market there: US postal workers don't tend to be the same shape as Lance Armstrong. Most seem to have more in common with Mr Blobby.

And this is what is such a crying shame about Project Ginger: cities really ought to be reshaped around a revolutionary form of personal transportation. Sod Segway, bicycles are quick, door-to-door, light, powered by cornflakes and keep you fit.

It's this last bit that needs to be kept in mind: escalators, lifts, TV remote controls and now the Segway Human Transporter. These are all devices that are designed to make muscles atrophy.

Fatties need to walk more, not less! In fact, fatties really ought to ride bikes not walk or jog because pavement-pounding is too stressful on their lard-arse joints.

In today's Washington Post, a doctor bemoaned America's descent into obesity through lack of exercise:

"Sixty percent of the country is obese with the prevalence of obesity increasing rapidly," said Dr. Philip Ades, director of preventive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

"From 1900 to 2000 the average number of calories ingested for the average American has not increased, implying that the major reason for the obesity epidemic in the US is the decrease in physical activity over this time period."

The answer? Bikes. Bikes. Bikes.

Yet Kamen feels bicycles are distinctly passe, dangerous even.

It's only his machine that could reshape our cities, he told Time magazine.

"Cities need cars like fish need bicycles," said Kamen. Segways, he told Time, are ideal for downtown transportation. Unlike cars, they are cheap, clean, efficient, maneuverable. Unlike bicycles, he told Time, with not a shred of irony, they are designed specifically to be pedestrian friendly.

"A bike is too slow and light to mix with trucks in the street but too large and fast to mix with pedestrians on the sidewalk," he argued.

"Our machine is compatible with the sidewalk. If a Segway hits you, it's like being hit by another pedestrian."

Er, remember this heavy device has a top speed of 17mph so, clearly, Kamen has yet to be hit by Segway!

Yet maybe one positive thing to come out of the Segway story is the fact that there's now a debate about reshaping cities away from dependence on cars.

"I love cars too," Kamen told Time. "Just not when I'm downtown."

The Time reporter went on to write:

"And [Kamen] is well aware that uprooting the vast urban infrastructure that supports cars, from parking garages to bridges and tunnels, won't happen soon. Which is why he has pinned his greatest hopes not on the U.S. but abroad, especially in the developing world. At a meeting with [Steve] Jobs a year ago, the Apple co-founder proclaimed, in typically hyperbolic fashion, "If enough people see this machine, you won't have to convince them to architect cities around it; it'll just happen."

Shouldn't that apply to bikes first, the original and still the best urban transporation device, that's cheaper to run than a Segway, quicker and cleaner too...

LINKS

To see pix of the Segway, and its dorky riders, go to bbc.co.uk or any newspaper website, the story made most of the UK nationals today. And any search on google.com - start with Project Ginger - will give lots of results. Prepare to be amazed! Not.

NOTES

Here's how Segway's developers described their invention to the US Patents Office:

"The invention provides, in a preferred embodiment, a vehicle for transporting a human subject over ground having a surface that may be irregular. This embodiment has a support for supporting the subject. A ground-contacting module, movably attached to the support, serves to suspend the subject in the support over the surface. The orientation of the ground-contacting module defines fore-aft and lateral planes intersecting one another at a vertical.

"The support and the ground-contacting module are components of an assembly. A motorized drive, mounted to the assembly and coupled to the ground-contacting module, causes locomotion of the assembly and the subject therewith over the surface. Finally, the embodiment has a control loop, in which the motorized drive is included, for dynamically enhancing stability in the fore-aft plane by operation of the motorized drive in connection with the ground-contacting module."

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