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Intelligent Machines

The Best Segue for Segway

To be a success, the famous balancing motor scooter will need more than state-of-the-art engineering.

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.

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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.

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.

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