Dean Kamen’s Segway is a superb technical achievement. Beautifully designed and intimately responsive, the high tech scooter puts the fun back into functional.But Segway’s marketplace success requires more than state-of-the-art engineering; it requires even more artful political lobbying. Why? Because Segways need sidewalks. A Segway without a sidewalk is like a BMW without an autobahn. Instead of being the Henry Ford or Alfred P. Sloan of sidewalks, Kamen could devolve into a pedestrian Preston Tucker-a visionary whose inventive prowess vastly exceeded his sales. Deregulating the sidewalks is the essential political innovation that will make Segways go.
Kamen has been enormously successful in persuading state legislatures to allow sidewalk access. So far, 33 states have approved sidewalk Segways with but a few restrictions such as requiring helmets for riders. In most states, bills were introduced to permit “electronic personal assistive mobility devices” on sidewalks. Given Kamen’s impressive history as an inventor of technology for the physically challenged, many people interpreted that phrase to mean electric wheelchairs-nothing more. A terrific public-relations campaign conducted by Manchester, NH-based Segway, the company Kamen formed to market the scooter, combined with tightly controlled demonstrations of the vehicle in action, lubricated legislative acceptance nationwide.
It has been reported that the company spent less than $1 million on its lobbying efforts during the first year of the product launch. According to publicly filed records, Segway invested less than $100,000 lobbying for sidewalk access in California: a drop in the bucket compared to the $2.8 million Pacific Gas and Electric, the troubled power giant, spent over the same amount of time. The political payback arguably is worth more than the highest return on any of Segway’s venture funding.
The legislative catch, however, is that in many states, jurisdiction over sidewalks belongs to the municipalities, some of which have proved skeptical of the novel vehicle. Fearing that Segways could become the equivalent of sidewalk sport-utility vehicles, San Francisco bureaucrats recently declined to grant permission that would let Kamen’s machines mingle with the city’s pedestrians. Several other communities have also expressed concern that Segways might be the wrong kind of revolution to bring to their crosswalks, plazas, and public spaces.