Reinventing the Wheel

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Dean's Machine: Will cities allow it to share the sidewalk with pedestrians?

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Kamen agrees. "Most people in the developing world can't afford cars, and if they could, it would be a complete disaster," he says. "If you were building one of the new cities of China, would you do it the way we have? Wouldn't it make more sense to build a mass-transit system around the city and leave the central couple of square miles for pedestrians only?" Pedestrians and people riding Segways, that is.

"There's no question in my mind that we have the right answer," he continues. "I would stake my reputation, my money and my time on the fact that 10 years from now, this will be the way many people in many places get around." Kamen pauses and sighs. "If all we end up with are a few billion-dollar niche markets, that would be a disappointment. It's not like our goal was just to put the golf-cart industry out of business."

Remember Tucker?
One of the hardest truths for any technologist to hear is that success or failure in business is rarely determined by the quality of the technology. Betamax was better than VHS; the Mac operating system is superior to Windows. Even in the transportation business, there is the cautionary tale of Preston Tucker, who in the 1940s designed a "car of the future" packed with such safety innovations as a padded dashboard, disk brakes and safety glass--a car so far ahead of its time that only 51 were ever produced. In fact, the annals of high-tech history contain remarkably few cases in which the most innovative technology has emerged triumphant in the marketplace.

This is the sort of thing that keeps Kamen up at night. There are countless others. High on the list are congenitally skittish regulators who will decide if the Segway is safe and if it will be allowed to roll on sidewalks.

Kamen maintains, with characteristic chutzpah, that Segways are "even safer than walking." Only slightly less emphatic, and slightly more plausible, was the verdict of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which began reviewing the device last May. According to Ron Medford, a senior CPSC official, the Segway has "safety features that are far more substantial than we normally see in a consumer product--features closer to those associated with medical devices." (Medford, it must be said, was so impressed that he is taking a sabbatical at DEKA, though he remains on the government's payroll.) To make the machine even safer, it comes equipped with three computerized keys that set speed and performance limits. The slowest setting, now called training mode, used to be jokingly referred to around DEKA as CEO mode.

The sidewalk issue is dicier. In order to ensure that Segways are permitted to move alongside pedestrians, Kamen's regulatory-affairs mavens will have to keep the machine from being classified either as a motor vehicle or as a scooter. At the federal level, the deal is done--though, for a while, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration wanted to classify the Segway as a "powered industrial truck." Technically, final sidewalk authority rests with state and local governments. Kamen is betting, however, that the decision will be made not by lawmakers but "de facto, by what becomes standard practice. If we have police and mail carriers riding on the sidewalks for a year, how is anyone in government going to say, 'It's O.K. for us but not O.K. for you'?"

No matter how inherently safe Segways may be, someone, somewhere is going to kill himself on one. "It's inevitable," says Gary Bridge, Segway's marketing chief. "I dread that day." Never mind that people die every day on bicycles, in crosswalks, on skateboards, in cars. The Segway is the newest new thing, and nothing does more to set hearts afire on the contingency-fee bar. "There are some very deep pockets around this thing," remarks Andy Grove. "I fear this could be a litigation lightning rod."

Not to mention a lightning rod for fierce competition. Although Kamen trashes the automobile at every opportunity and is plotting a future in which cars are barred from cities, he insists that the Big Three and their brethren will see the Segway as no threat. "Nobody in America or any developed nation will buy one of these instead of buying a car," he says. "People will buy these in addition to owning a car." But a former top auto executive thinks Kamen is kidding himself--or kidding me. "The car companies track market share by one one-hundredths of a percentage point," he says. "They're incredibly sensitive on that front, and this is going to dent somebody's market share."

Even if the auto barons leave the Segway alone, other players are unlikely to be so forgiving. When Kamen and his lieutenants draw up lists of probable rivals, companies in other branches of the transportation industry--firms that make ATVs, motorcycles, scooters, even snowmobiles--are near the top. But the lists have been long and varied, including a raft of appliance makers, engineering companies and, especially, consumer-electronics giants, such as Sony. Kamen's team is confident it has a long technological lead, as well as patents on most of its key innovations. "Reverse engineering this thing won't be easy," says Schmertzler. "This is not a pet rock." Yet if the Segway is a runaway hit, you can bet that a flood of knock-offs--much less sophisticated but also much cheaper--will soon wash over the market.

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