2/1/2002 | 9 MINUTE READ

Panic In Detroit

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Dean Kamen's Mobility Device and Why It Caused Immoderate Upset in the Motor City Although the device that was code-named "Ginger" and was rumored to be as status quo-shattering as the PC, Internet, and canned beer is probably not going to be quite as disruptive, it is the most significant change on wheels that we've seen in this century.


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When Dean Kamen, chairman of Segway LLC (Manchester, NH), rolled out onto the floor at Delphi Automotive Systems World Headquarters (Troy, MI) on his Segway Human Transporter (HT), he was surrounded by a demi-menacing group brandishing pens and microcassette recorders rather than shivs and chains. Yet their intent and attitude were no less aggressive than other turf defenders in less sophisticated environs. These Motor City based reporters wanted to know who the hell this guy from New Hampshire (!) thought he was, coming to Detroit with this wheeled device, the Segway HT, a device that they were certain was (1) a gizmo and (2) a threat to the fundamental automobile industry. Confused? Yes, they were. (Why what they clearly thought was nothing more than a glorified powered scooter would threaten the very viability of the automobile industry was odd. But they seemingly instinctively knew that the Segway was wrong.)

So they moved in for the kill. They were going to pummel Kamen with questions such that he’d buzz out of town in a hurry.

What they hadn’t counted on was that the diminutive Kamen was, well, Clark Kent, of a sorts.

One lunged with a question: People don’t walk enough now; isn’t the Segway going to contribute to this unhealthy, sedentary behavior? Kamen slipped by with an ever-so slight move: the Segway isn’t an exercise device, but by permitting people to move more efficiently during their daily tasks, there could be an abundance of available time opened up for people to walk or do chin-ups or whatever. And besides that, he counterpunched: Do you wash your clothes by beating them with rocks?

Another reporter leapt into the fray with a point that he was certain would propel Kamen back to Manchester, tout suite: Kamen is proposing the Segway for use on sidewalks. Obviously, that can’t happen because the transporter would be too dangerous to pedestrians.

Kamen answered this by driving his Segway right into the reporter, who was far more stunned than he was hurt. “Ooo,” Kamen observed, “this is just so-o-o-o dangerous . . .”

A TV reporter knew that she’d make him sorry he’d ever come to Detroit with that over-hyped scooter. “You expect that thing to work here, where we have ice and snow,” she challenged. Geographical understanding is evidently not as important as a good haircut and a pretty smile when it comes to qualifications for Action News. They do know a little something about ice and snow in New Hampshire. Kamen, patience wearing thin, patiently explained that when they did winter testing of the Segway last year, conditions that caused the test engineers to fall unceremoniously on their butts were readily negotiated by the Segway; the five solid-state gyroscopes and microprocessor array equivalent to the computing power that would be used for two lunar modules proved to be rather adept. “Those of us on Segways,” Kamen said, “grabbed the engineers who were on foot and pulled them like this.” And with the this, he seized the reporter’s wrist and caused the Segway to smoothly move backward as she stumbled along on her high heels.

It went on like that for a while. Each roundhouse punch thrown was parlayed by an ever-so-slight movement by Kamen.

Finally, I came up with what I figured would certainly take Kamen down. The Segway was certainly a clear and present danger. I put it to him boldly: “Could you run over someone’s foot with that thing?” Ha!

And he promptly ran over my right foot.

“Hurts less than it would if I had ground my heel into your foot,” Kamen commented. He was right. He zoomed off. I walked away. Without a limp.

Later, J.T. Battenberg III, Delphi chairman, CEO, and president, noted, “I’ve never seen anyone fall off one of those things.” Kamen certainly stood tall. OK. He stood eight inches taller than he normally does (as that is the height that the platform of the Segway gives you—and the entire time that Kamen talked, he was perched on a Segway).

Perhaps the best explanation for why some people are so disturbed by the Segway, unease that leads them to want to dismiss or attack it, came from Donald L. Runkle, executive vp of Delphi Automotive Systems, president of its Dynamics & Propulsion Section, and all-around “car guy.” Runkle starts with an analogy. He points out that one of the problems that electric vehicles (EVs)—as in cars, not Segways—have is that there is a good point of comparison: a car with an internal combustion engine. So people can make a determination about whether to go electric or not. (“I believe in economic gravity,” Runkle said. “Consumers will find the low-cost solution.”)

“This,” he said, pointing to a Segway, “doesn’t have any competition, so to speak. It increases the distance that a person can walk or his speed by three to four times. It’s not like a scooter or a bicycle on which you have to keep moving to be balanced.”

Because there is no ready point of comparison (even Kamen stated, “I can’t imagine giving up my car for a Segway HT”), the Segway stands on its own.

“When I saw it in Dean’s garage,” Runkle recalled, “I was totally blown away. I said, ‘This is it!’” He added, “I’m just glad we are involved with it.”

Kamen, candidly admitted: “We’re a tiny little company.” Yet he says that the manufacturing capacity that they have to produce the Segway HT (initially for commercial use, as in the U.S. Postal Service having its carriers rolling along on the devices) in its factory in Bedford, NH, is on the order of 100,000+. Why? Well, for one thing, there is the connection with companies like Delphi, which assisted in the development of the electronic system, including the control unit circuit boards and the user interface components. Two points about this relationship. For one thing, Kamen said, “We knew that when we needed to find somebody to build our electronics, it wouldn’t be the kind of electronics that sits on your desk in your PC.” He is concerned with reliability. “We needed someone who could build electronics for us that would bounce around on roads and go through salt and be used in the same environment that people use cars. And it would always have to work.” Obviously, that meant they couldn’t work with a PC electronics company. And as for the second point: “We needed a partner that could scale.” In other words, Kamen wanted a company that could provide high volume manufacturing—based on the assumption that the Segway HT will become a highly demanded product.

Other key companies that Segway engineers worked with are:

  • GE Plastics. Among the materials used is SOLLX polymer, which is a weather- and chemical-resistant film that is an alternative to paint.
  • Michelin North America. It developed special tires and wheels for the device.
  • Pacific Scientific. Provides the brushless DC servomotors (there is a motor per wheel; they are compact, about 2.5-in. in diameter and 2-in. long). They’ve been tested to 2-hp. They power the unit at up to 12.5 mph. Required maintenance is nil.
  • SAFT. Supplies the batteries. Both nickel-cadmium (NiCd) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries are available. The Segway has sufficient charge to travel 11 miles (although 17 miles is cited as being possible under “optimal conditions”). It is recharged via a typical 120-v plug-in.
  • Silicon Sensing System. This is a joint venture company formed by BAE Systems (the U.K.) and Sumitomo Precision Products (Japan), an outfit that specializes in silicon micro-machined sensors. If there is one aspect of the Segway that’s really amazing (Kamen uses the term “magic,” and he’s not far off) is its so-called “Dynamic Stabilization” technology. There are five gyroscopes and two tilt sensors packaged in the unit’s “commercial sensor assembly.” The rider’s center of gravity is measured approximately 100 times per second. Which accounts for (a) the ability for the individual to stay upright and (b) the forward and backward motion of the unit (the person leans in the direction he wants to go; a movable grip on the handlebar provides left-right turning control).

Most of the products from these supplier companies are brought in as modules so they are readily assembled into Segways. This permits comparatively simple ramping up of production at Segway. “As long as these giant companies are willing to open their spigot for us, we’ll be able to keep up with demand,” Kamen said.

There will be three models, with initial concentration commercial devices, which will cost about $8,000 to $10,000. Within a couple of years, Kamen said, they hope to be able to bring the price down to about $3,000 for consumer applications.

I zoomed around on a Segway HT. I am admittedly impressed with the technology. But I am still skeptical that anyone outside of those technology-oriented early adopters who have the latest and greatest in all that’s technical and new will be riding on Segways within the next several years. (Of course, 10 years ago I would have probably made a similar comment about the proliferation of telephones that are the size of a pack of cigarettes—or that that size comparison would be less meaningful to many people because of the anti-smoking phenomena).

But when it comes to commercial/industrial applications, one story that Kamen told tells the story as to why the Segway HT has a solid future. They visited the Cisco Systems campus in San Jose. The average revenue per employee at Cisco is on the order of $800,000. Say you’re John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco. Do you want your people walking from one building to another or quickly getting there on Segways?