Monday, January 10, 2011

How's this for segue? I'm sure gullible investors drowned their sorrows, but this is ridiculous

It's been an up-and-down few months for the Segway corporation. I just saw a little clip of the Ford EN-V 'networked vehicle' concept, um, car. It was demo'd at CES in 'Vegas, under very controlled conditions admittedly, but it was almost cool in a sure-if-you-can-completely-change-the-existing-infrastructure kind of way.

That was a more upbeat story than the one that came out a few months ago, when the war profiteer who bought the Segway company from Dean Kamen and his contrite investors drowned while exploring his English country estate when – wait for it – he drove his Segway off an embankment and into a river. “Thank you, Charles Darwin,” I thought, while looking back through some old files in search of this Backmarker...

Oh, how this takes me back to those heady days just before Christmas, 2001. There was a flurry of media activity as inventor Dean Kamen unveiled the most skillfully hyped invention of all time. For a year, Kamen’s invention had been known only as “it.” Being privy to the secret became corporate America’s ultimate status symbol.

After the collapse of the dot-conomy, “it” was touted as the invention that would reboot the tech sector. Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr sank millions into it. Harvard paid a $250,000 advance to publish its story, before they even knew what “it” was. Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs saw it and said, “Cities will be designed around it.”

All Kamen would admit was that its code-name was “Ginger.” The inventor had recently patented a stair-climbing wheelchair called the iBot. That project had been code-named “Fred.” Based on such scanty evidence, Internet chat groups speculated that “it” was a personal hovercraft or jet-pack, even a Star Trek-style teleporter, or maybe cold fusion.

Well, live on Good Morning America, Kamen finally showed off his “Segway Human Transporter.”
It had two wheels, and stayed upright because it was gyroscopically stabilized. That was so cool.
And a motor made it go! Why didn’t I think of that?

And to make it turn—this was the best part—you leaned in the direction you want to go!
Forgive my cynicism, but it was a scooter. Admittedly a different one, with the wheels placed side by side, an electric motor good for a top speed of 12 mph, and a battery range of 15 miles.

According to its supporters, the 65-pound Segway can be operated for pennies a day. They claimed that it would revolutionize short-distance urban travel, reducing road congestion and pollution while increasing mobility. Although Segway Corp. hasn’t backed away from that initial hype, the company is now promoting its product as a utility vehicle for the likes of police and postmen in North America (look out, Cushman!)

In Europe, the oddball scooter is making inroads amongst urban commuters, as a result of sky-high gas prices—at least that’s the company’s claim in pre-IPO propaganda. (Man, I’m tired of the old, “We’re a niche market here but, in Europe we’re really popular” line. And besides that, Segways aren’t popular there.

Only a few percent of the company’s minuscule sales came from Europe last year, so any rapid growth in percentage terms is trivial in absolute terms.) Which is lucky in one sense… because although 12 mph is too slow for most commutes, it’s too fast for most sidewalks. Think of it this way: the average person and his Segway have the combined mass—and nearly the speed—of an NFL linebacker. Imagine the collisions.

So how does it compare to my around-town scoot, which is a decidedly low-tech 1973 BMW R75? Unlike the Segway, my BMW can reach freeway speeds, a big win for the motorcycle. To be honest, I don’t really know what my range is—at least ten times the Segway’s. I admit the Segway, at “pennies a day,” beats me on operating costs; my bike costs me about a quarter a day. But since Segways now sell (albeit slowly) for from four to seven grand—about double what the old BMW cost, it’ll be a while before I fall behind.
Unlike a Segway, my bike is the only transportation I have or need (except for a bicycle). How many people can really cover their entire commute at 12 mph?

My BMW can easily carry a passenger, the Segway can’t. The Segway company still forlornly hopes that its scooter will be used on sidewalks and in buildings, not on the roads, and thus will not ever require licensing or insurance. That would be an advantage for the Segway. But I don’t see how building owners, who refuse entry to people on in-line skates, are going to allow people to ride in on scooters.

That leaves the “pollution-free” claim. My BMW, I admit, burns fossil fuel. But, damn it, so do most power plants; that electricity isn’t “pollution-free,” it’s just “pollution-somewhere-else.” Even hydro-electric dams are built at huge environmental cost. And nuclear power? Let’s not go there.

Don’t get me wrong. The Segway’s use of gyros is very clever. And the body-English-sensing control system is way, way cool. (Note to Keith Code: even you’ll have to admit that this one turns by leaning alone.)

Nor do I have anything against Dean Kamen. Many of his patents have dramatically improved peoples’ lives; the stair-climbing wheelchair, or the home dialysis machine, for example. These are head and shoulders above my best creative effort, which was to conceive of a revolutionary language training system for soccer hooligans. But I’m not jealous; it’s not Kamen who bugs me, it’s his Segway.

Why does it bug me? Not because the Segway company has burned through three CEOs to find one—James Norrod—so fluent in corporate nothingspeak that he can utter this quote without a trace of irony: “They thought it was the right time to bring me in to really lead this company through this crucial period and to a liquidity event.”

Not because the company has so grossly under-performed compared to initial projections. Dean Kamen, bragged that his Segway would “be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.” Venture capitalist John Doerr, an early investor, predicted the company would reach $1 billion in sales faster than any new company had ever hit that goal. Although it doesn’t release figures, Segway (“Sagway”?) sales are less than 10 percent of forecast. So far, it’s been a massive money loser, but the only people who’ve lost dough have so much of it no one’s been hurt.

It bugs me because it highlights the PR failures of the motorcycle industry. Those of you who have read me over the years (hi Mom) know that this frustration isn’t new.

It bugs me that the bike business has completely abandoned the premise that bikes can be practical transportation. It bugs me that so few people realize that going to work or running an errand by motorcycle is simply better than using a car or a sport utility. They burn less fuel and create less congestion on the roads. The fact that they’re way more fun is a bonus.

It bugs me that the motorcycle industry (and by that I don’t just mean the AMA, MIC and various companies’ marketing departments, I mean all of us, collectively) have completely failed to win what should be a slam-dunk environmental argument. The average person thinks bikes are noisier, more polluting and harder on the environment than cars. We’ve completely failed to explain that, while bikes do pollute more per gallon of fuel burned, all bikes burn much less fuel, and pollute less in absolute terms than any corresponding car or truck. Fewer resources are used in their manufacture, and they’re easier to recycle and dispose of when their useful life is finished. In places where common sense reigns and motorcycles can lane-split, we can get where we're going a lot faster and, by staying out of the traffic column, help all those cage drivers get where they're going a tiny bit faster. thus reducing both frustration, waste, and pollution.

In the U.S., Segway “commuters” would really just use it to get from their parking stall into their office. (So in an obesity epidemic, the last bit of exercise in most Americans’ daily lives could be eliminated.) By contrast, every time someone takes a motorcycle to work instead of a car, they reduce congestion along their entire route, improving fuel economy and reducing pollution for everyone, even sport utility drivers.

The dopey Segway has already done a Razor. (Remember those folding aluminum scooters? They started out as the ultimate in executive hip. One even appeared in a New Yorker cartoon. But now they’re hand-me-downs. Eight-year-olds ride them, rattling across the broken sidewalks in the working-class Latino neighborhood behind my house.)

By contrast, when I ride past the local elementary school, the kids in the schoolyard wave, point, and often actually cheer me on. After over 100 years, motorcycles still look, sound, and are cool. That’s why if Kamen and Norrod want a hip, economical, environmentally friendly urban runabout, they can have their Segways. I’ll keep my motorcycle.

Lots of water has passed under the bridge (and over Mr. Heselden) since I wrote that. My BMW R75 was sacrificed on the altar of divorce (replaced by an equally plebian Triumph Bonneville.) I have to admit that my motorcycle vs. car pollution scenario was a little rosy; Susan Carpenter wrote an expose in the L.A. Times that cited motorcycles' disproportionate output of smog-producing chemicals - an act of journalistic honesty that got her excoriated by other motorcycle writers. My friend the motorcycle and suspension guru Tony Foale actually went to work for Segway; I'm not sure if his project was the EN-V or something else. The company's even more of a secrecy cult than Apple, so I didn't even ask what he was up to.

I took a closer look at the ratio of power sources that supply the North American power grid and had to admit that on balance while EVs are not pollution-free, they pollute far less per mile than any ICE motorcycle. I was perhaps the only motorcycle journalist who sided with Susan on her story -- although I still maintain that the total carbon footprint of motorcycle travel is far lower than most car travel, and that the convenience motorcycles offer their riders in congested cities reduces stress; a sort of emotional pollution. In places with sensible motorcycle parking rules, the use of motorcycles frees up parking spaces for cage drivers, further reducing their collective frustration and the millions of miles they rack up every year looking for open parking spaces.   

In short...  while this is an improvement, Segway, I still don't envy the EN-V. Once again, I'll take my motorcycle, and I continue to believe the world would be a cleaner and happier place if more people did likewise.

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