In the New Century . . . All Will Have Wheels
December 3, 2001: Segway Unveiled
Inventor Dean Kamen unveils the Segway self-balancing, battery-powered vehicle on the TV show, Good Morning America. The Segway is a personal transport device that uses five gyroscopes and a built-in computer to remain upright. The first Segway used no brakes and did a nifty 12 mph. Users shift their weight to control the Segway. While not considered a commercial success, the Segway has definitely become a familiar icon of personal transportation. (Above cartoon from Brown County Democrat, December 28, 1900)
Dean Kamen’s team developed a breakthrough technology the company termed “Dynamic Stabilization,” which is the essence of the Segway. Dynamic Stabilization enables Segway self-balancing emulation to work seamlessly with the body’s movements. Gyroscopes and tilt sensors in the Segway HT monitor a user’s center of gravity about 100 times a second.
When a person leans slightly forward, the Segway moves forward. When leaning back, the Segway moves back. This balancing act is the most amazing thing about the Segway, and it is the key to its operation. To understand how this system works, it helps to consider Kamen’s model for the device — the human body.
If you stand up and lean forward, so that you are out of balance, you probably won’t fall on your face. Your brain knows you are out of balance, because fluid in your inner ear shifts, so it triggers you to put your leg forward and stop the fall. If you keep leaning forward, your brain will keep putting your legs forward to keep you upright. Instead of falling, you walk forward, one step at a time.
The Segway does pretty much the same thing, except it has wheels instead of legs, a motor instead of muscles, a collection of microprocessors instead of a brain and a set of sophisticated tilt sensors instead of an inner-ear balancing system. Like your brain, the Segway knows when you are leaning forward. To maintain balance, it turns the wheels at just the right speed, so you move forward.
Glowing pre-release reviews from Mr. Jobs, Mr. Doerr, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, among other tech giants – spurred huge hype. Steve Jobs said it would be bigger than the PC. Venture capitalist John Doerr (who backed Netscape and Amazon) said it would be bigger than the Internet. Inventor Dean Kamen said it would be to the car what “the car was to the horse and buggy.” Today? The Segway hasn’t exactly lived up to its early-Millennium hype.
After its release in 2002 the Segway quickly sputtered to a halt. Since Segways could go up to 13 m.p.h., they were not allowed on most sidewalks. However, they also went too slow for many roads, leaving customers unsure of where to ride them. Plus, the $4,950 debut price put the machines far out of budget for the average consumer. By 2004, Segway was out of its initial investment money and would have to mortgage its factory.
Since then, Segway has been able to bounce back a bit, gaining contracts with police departments, security companies, and golf courses, and has seen 50 percent sales growth per year since it was first released. For now, however, it appears what most Segways have changed is the state of the tourism industry, with Segway tours in nearly every major city in the United States.
On a Tragic Note: Segway Owner Drives Segway Off Cliff
James Heselden (1948–2010), having recently purchased the Segway production company, died in a single-vehicle Segway accident. Heselden was a former coal miner and British entrepreneur. He made his fortune manufacturing the Hesco bastion barrier system. In 2010, he bought Segway Inc. He died from injuries sustained from falling from a cliff whilst riding his Segway.
At 11:40 a.m. on 26 September 2010, West Yorkshire Police received reports of a man falling 213 feet into the River Wharfe, near Boston Spa, apparently having fallen from the cliffs above. The fall from a narrow footpath was witnessed by a man walking his dog nearby. A Segway vehicle was recovered and Heselden was pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics.
The narrow pathway used by walkers is littered with tree roots and is rutted and uneven for most of its length. The Segway was found in the river near his body, indicating that he was still riding the scooter when he drove over the cliff.
Mr. Heselden bought the Segway company in a deal last December and planned to further develop the machine.