Since its much-hyped unveiling on Good Morning America on Dec. 3, 2001, the Segway Human Transporter (HT) has been met with both acclaim and disdain. After 11 months of speculation about what "It" or "Ginger" (as the promised invention was variously code-named) could be (Silicon Valley luminaries John Doerr and Andy Grove even suggested that "It" might be bigger than the PC or the Internet), America was expecting something truly grandiose.
What America got was a high-tech scooter. But the HT--with its 10 microchips, five solid-state gyroscopes (the same ones found in cruise missiles) and two tilt sensors that work together to intuit subtle shifts in a rider's weight--was, in fact, a bit more. And people who've had a chance to take it for a self-balancing spin unanimously report that it is, in fact, pretty remarkable.
Among the handful of organizations that have purchased HTs are the United States Post Office, Disney Cruise Lines, New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG) and construction company Walbridge Aldinger. (Consumer versions of the device will emerge from the lab in 2003, says a Segway spokesperson.) Those and other companies that have tested but not yet purchased HTs are looking to the vehicle to improve productivity and to mitigate the strain on employees who do a lot of on-the-job perambulating. Mike Wales, a safety engineer for Walbridge Aldinger, says that by using an HT he can often inspect his portion of a construction site two to three times more frequently than he can on foot. During initial tests of the HTs, GE Plastics also saw the potential for double-digit productivity gains among environmental health and safety engineers and maintenance and security staff in its plants.
Over the next year, more companies plan to test the HT. (One recent morning in Segway's Manchester, N.H., headquarters, two men from transportation and logistics company Bax Global were there to investigate the HT.) Observers speculate that if the HT takes off anywhere, it will be in industrial settings, in part because the company is battling with legislators about its sidewalk safety. Segway is planning to offer HTs customized with canvas bags for different industrial uses, and the company also expects to build HTs that somehow shelter riders who spend much of their workday outdoors, such as NYSEG meter readers.
But if HTs themselves don't catch on, the technology that makes them work is likely to find a home elsewhere. When the idea of putting the gyroscopic guts of an HT in a motorcycle was suggested to William Gray, a Delphi Delco power train executive, he said he had heard other people in the automotive industry discuss that possibility. Tobe Cohen, a spokesman for Segway, wouldn't comment, but if you think about the money Segway could make from selling its patents, you might find the HT, and its attendant hoopla, considerably less comical.