This worry is understandable. Automobile traffic is already a headache; what headaches might a slew of Segways bring to pedestrian traffic? The answer is far fuzzier than it should be. That’s because Kamen’s company has done a much better job prototyping the Segway than prototyping the Segway’s potential sidewalk impact.The company’s lobbying efforts have been extraordinarily effective despite the paucity of its public- and pedestrian-impact research. But even superior lobbying goes only so far. In the hardball worlds of regulation, legislation, and litigation, the Segway cannot succeed unless it can be persuasively demonstrated that the vehicle’s public benefits exceed its imposed costs.
If the Segway is to have any chance of becoming a mass transportation medium, the makers of the vehicle must model its impact as rigorously as they modeled the technology. They have to provide satisfactory answers to such questions as: What does a San Francisco sidewalk look like with five Segways vying for space? How quickly do Dallas pedestrians move when Segways are proceeding in rows rather than single file? When does the density of Segways in a crowded New York City intersection create a tipping point that turns pedestrian gridlock into midtown mayhem? Presenting such simulations to city planners and aldermen would help Segway’s maker build credibility, trust, and insight into local circumstance.
Recognizing this analytical gap, Segway announced in January that it would use Celebration, FL, Disney’s prefabricated city, as its most comprehensive test site for observing how well-or how poorly-Segways mix with the pedestrian masses. But that misses a terrific opportunity for innovators such as Kamen to simulate their inventions in the “real” world. Segway lends itself perfectly to computer modeling and simulation technologies that make public access easier to visualize and assess. It should be easy to simulate virtual Segways traveling the virtual sidewalks of San Francisco, Chicago, and Berlin. In the final analysis, giving legislators and the public tools that let them visualize and play with the possibilities posed by Segway-like innovations, Kamen could give the masses of potential customers the ultimate power to persuade themselves.
That’s the real innovation challenge Kamen confronts. Most people are pretty happy with their cars; alas, most people are pretty unhappy about having to drive them in traffic. For the Segway to survive the next round of regulatory infighting, the company should rely on its virtual abilities to simulate the sidewalk rather than its physical capacity to take customers for a ride.