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Months after the hype: Is Segway still it?

Human transporter gets workout on sidewalks, ships

Segways are still a curiosity for people riding commuter trains in Atlanta.
Segways are still a curiosity for people riding commuter trains in Atlanta.  

By Marsha Walton
CNN Sci Tech

(CNN) -- Commuters in many cities are used to sharing space on the train or subway with bicycles. But there still are stares from onlookers making room for Segways, the much-hyped "human transporter" developed by inventor Dean Kamen and unveiled in December 2001.

While it will still be a year to 18 months before consumers can purchase the Segway, those marketing the commercial version say they're pleased with what they're hearing from companies and industries doing pilot testing.

The Segway is a 2-wheeled "vehicle" that looks something like a big handtruck that a delivery person might use. There is no accelerator and there are no brakes on this "people mover." Instead, the sophisticated electronics have been designed to respond to changes in body position. Lean forward, it moves forward. Lean back, it goes back. Stand up straight, it stops.

"We have been delighted with the progress in the ten months since we've launched," said Tobe Cohen, Segway's director of marketing.

"We've initiated pilot programs with police, EMTs [emergency medical technicians], utilities, and most recently with the New York Transit Authority," Cohen said.

Put to the test

Atlanta, Georgia, was among the earliest cities to put Segway to the test.

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The Atlanta Regional Commission has demonstrated its two Segways to almost 500 people over the past few months, from corporate executives to chambers of commerce to local governments. ARC is a 10-county body that deals with long-term environmental planning, land use, and transportation policy.

"Our purpose was to evaluate how effective they would be in the Atlanta urban area, to see if they could relieve congestion, and help improve air quality," said Bob McCord, Segway project manager at the commission.

"We're not here to promote them, but if employees of downtown companies can use them to avoid lots of short car trips, then that would be a good thing," said McCord.

He says the most effective uses so far seem to be for workers who have meetings outside their own office buildings, but in locations that are just a little too far to walk to.

Eight other Segways are in use in Atlanta -- two at Georgia Power and six by the Atlanta Ambassador Force, workers paid by local businesses to assist tourists, keep streets clean, and act as "eyes on the street" for law enforcement.

Practice makes perfect

While Segway's gyroscopes and tilt sensors pick up on what a rider wants to do, the transporter does require some training and some practice on a variety of surfaces: uneven pavement, sand, gravel, and even puddles.

Vacationers on Disney cruise ships can check out the Segway.
Vacationers on Disney cruise ships can check out the Segway.  

Tom Weyandt and Julie Zutkis, planning experts at the Atlanta Regional Commission recently put that agency's two Segways through their paces on the city's MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) trains.

"It takes awhile to learn," said Weyandt, director of comprehensive planning at ARC. "You can learn the basic operation in just a few minutes, but you need practice to really know how to use it on the sidewalk, how to mix with the pedestrian flow, how to handle curbs and driveway cuts," he said.

Segway's Cohen uses an analogy to winter sports: If you know how to ski you don't necessarily know how to snowboard, so a couple of lessons would be helpful.

For beginners, there is a sort of "training wheel" mode that keeps the Segway's top speed at six miles an hour. For most urban uses, where there will likely be pedestrians in the mix, there's a "sidewalk" mode that reaches nine miles per hour. Postal workers testing Segways are using that speed. And an "open environment" mode can move at 12.5 miles an hour. Cohen says that speed is being used at some large warehouses, where workers can move in clearly defined lanes.

Getting your Segway sea legs

Some senior citizens groups and advocates for the blind have expressed concerns about mixing Segways in crowded pedestrian areas, since the transporter is designed to function on the sidewalk. Weyandt says the success of the Segway will have less to do with the equipment itself and more with the etiquette and the courtesy of its riders.

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"The machine is governed with electronic keys so we can always set it in such a way that you don't allow the machine to go too fast for the circumstances," said Weyandt.

No price has yet been set for the consumer model of Segway. Among those able to try their feet on that model are some who have taken trips on Disney Cruise Line ships.

The devices are being used by some crew members to navigate the 11-passenger decks, and vacationers 16 and older can test their balance on the transporter.


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