November 19, 2002 2:46 PM PST

Segway or the highway

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SAN FRANCISCO--In a crowded City Hall meeting room here late last week, a group of elderly and disabled citizens made it clear they weren't buying technology's promises.

San Francisco County supervisors were debating the local future of the Segway Human Transporter, the high-tech scooter unveiled amid breathless hype last year. The Segway company has pitched the device as the future of transportation in polluted cities, on factory floors and elsewhere, and began selling the vehicles to the public just this week.

Groups devoted to the interests of senior citizens and the disabled in this high-tech city aren't happy with the idea. They think letting the new vehicles on the sidewalk will wind up hurting people who can't easily move out of the way, and they're lobbying City Hall to keep the Segway on the street along with most other motorized vehicles.

"Money talks," said Catherine Skivers, president of the California Council for the Blind. "In this case, I think it's talked so loud that people in jeopardy haven't been listened to."

The flare-up in San Francisco is one of the last remaining battles over the Segway in the United States, where the company's lobbying sweep may well go down as the most successful legislative blitzkrieg ever mounted by a technology company. During the past year or so, the company has won exemptions to sidewalk safety rules in about 30 states, with more expected to go along before the first consumer models ship to customers in March.

Money is only part of the explanation for Segway's lobbying success. The company claims it spent less than $1 million promoting its product in legislatures around the country, a sizable sum for a start-up but relatively little compared with the sums spent as part of top-level influence campaigns.

The company's political success stems from a confluence of factors, and can be attributed equally to brilliant marketing, a gee-whiz product and the backing of powerbrokers in tech circles who sang the Segway's praises early on.

Scooting for the hip
At the center of the debate is a new type of transportation device, a motorized scooter that sports two wheels side-by-side and uses gyroscopes and advanced software to keep itself balanced even with an unstable rider. It has a top speed of 12.5 miles per hour--a pace three to four times that of the average walker, or about half the average foot speed of an Olympic 100-meter sprinter, depending on how you look at it. The Segway lacks a traditional steering mechanism but has been lauded for its precise control and ease of handling, which involve translating a rider's slight weight-shifts into forward motion, pinpoint turns and stops.

Segway scooter The Segway has won design awards while its presumed potential has inspired comparisons to the revolutionary effect of the automobile in the era of the horse and buggy. The device has also won critics, who say its undeniable high-tech charm has persuaded legislators to ignore the interests of pedestrians.

One complaint has focused on the pace of the approval process for a device that was introduced to the public only recently. Over less than a year, the company's efforts have changed state law in about 30 states, moving far faster than almost any other significant lobbying push in memory. No state has yet banned the device, although key regions, including New York, are still hammering out agreements.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Melissa Savage, senior policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, a group that tracks state legislative issues. "I think most traffic safety advocates, or anyone who would lobby on the other side, were caught totally off guard."

The ultimate effects on urban centers have yet to be fully understood, critics warn. The device has won rounds of kudos for its environmentally friendly design, but critics argue that allowing the high-powered vehicles on sidewalks designed for foot traffic could change the character and use of pedestrian areas, especially if the scooters are adopted en masse.

While that's unlikely in the short term--the Segway currently retails for about $5,000--the prospect of dodging even a handful of Segway riders at the busiest intersections in Manhattan at rush hour is enough to give many people pause.

Organized opposition to the company's proposals evolved slowly, in many cases coming together too late to have much of an impact on the legislative push. The loose coalition, made up primarily of injury prevention specialists, seniors and advocates for the disabled, along with some consumers' organizations, isn't against the vehicle itself. The groups argue that letting the Segway onto city sidewalks without hard safety data isn't a good idea, and could wind up hurting people with mobility problems.

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"It's a very innovative device, but it has to be used in the correct circumstances," said Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research at the Columbus Children's Hospital in Ohio, and one of the most vocal of the parties that are calling for caution. "The purpose of sidewalks is to separate motorized traffic from pedestrian traffic. That's served us well over the years."

Under the radar?
The company says its opponents' worries are overblown. Inventor Dean Kamen and his team of engineers invented the vehicle's self-balancing technology in the course of creating a wheelchair that would help disabled people go up stairs, thus, they say, they understand the concerns of senior citizens and disabled individuals.

"For us, the whole point of creating the technology was to solve mobility problems," said Doug Field, Segway's chief engineer, in San Francisco last week. "We designed (the Segway) to put riders into the same environment as pedestrians."

The company knew early on that riding the Segway on city sidewalks would technically be illegal in many states. In most areas, motorized vehicles were banned from sidewalks, a rule the company knew would likely be applied to its new invention.

With just a two-person regulatory staff, and a relatively small budget for such a large task, the company fanned out to approach state legislatures this year. It hired local lobbyists in most states and provided samples of the scooter to lawmakers, making the sight of smiling legislators tooling along capital hallways a common one. It wooed potential opponents, showing off the technology to special interest and advocacy groups.

Brian Toohey, vice president of regulatory and international affairs at Segway, says the company kept a tight grip on its wallet even as it argued its case to politicians. Less than $1 million was spent on lobbying in the past year, he said, and none of that went to campaign contributions.

California records show the company spent about $72,000 on lobbying expenditures for the bill in that state. As big-money campaigns go, that's small--over the same period of time, California's embattled power company, Pacific Gas & Electric, spent more than $2.5 million on lobbying. But in California--as in more than two-dozen other states--Segway's expenditures proved more than sufficient.

As much as money, the shock value of the device itself and the star power of Kamen and his backers in the technology industry helped win legislators' attention.

In most cases, bills were introduced that would allow "Electronic Personal Assistive Mobility Devices" on sidewalks. To many, the NCSL's Savage said, the phrase suggested electric wheelchairs, and people didn't pay attention.

A similar bill was also introduced at the federal level. That stalled this year, in part after influential groups, including the Consumers Union, the United States Public Interest Research Groups, and the Consumers Federation of America, wrote letters asking that more research be done.

"From a safety perspective, we're still plenty concerned," said Sally Greenberg, senior product safety counsel for the Consumers Union. "I would advise buyers--and people who use the same sidewalks--to proceed with caution."

Few state legislatures balked, however. Close to 30 states passed laws saying the Segway could be used on sidewalks with only a few imposed restrictions, such as mandating training or the use of helmets.

No bruises yet
The product has been tested at length over the past year by police officers, postal employees and other groups that Segway has worked with to help demonstrate the vehicle's efficiency and safety record.

"We've logged tens of thousands of hours with people operating (the Segway) in real city environments without injury," Field told San Francisco policy-makers last week. "There has been not a single incidence of injury to a pedestrian."

Bob McCord, a manager at the Atlanta Regional Commission who has overseen that body's tests of the Segway, says it has seemed to fit into pedestrian environments.

"It's not really a problem," McCord said. "If it's really crowded, you can only go as fast as pedestrians go. You just blend in."

The one reported accident occurred in Atlanta, when a police officer fell off a Segway and was taken to the hospital.

Indeed, critics' efforts in San Francisco may well be the last echoes of opposition fading out in the wake of Segway's successful campaign. Amazon.com began taking orders for the scooters this week. Fewer than 10 state legislatures, all of which were out of session in 2002, remain for the company to pursue.

The true test will come once the expensive devices show up on sidewalks, if indeed they prove popular with enough people to make any real impact in cities. The company says time will tell that critics' fears have been misguided.

"You can't expect everyone to embrace change," said Toohey. "But the overwhelming majority of people has said we should give this a chance."

 

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