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Segway may go off-road

The scooter maker is testing a new four-wheel gadget that travels 20 mph and can handle rough terrain. Photo: Four-wheeling with Segway

Today the sidewalk, tomorrow the world.

That's the promise from scooter pioneer Segway, which unveiled a prototype design this week for a four-wheeled vehicle that would allow riders to traverse rough terrain, among other benefits.

The Centaur appears to be in a fairly advanced state of development--videos on Segway's Web site show a test version zooming across a variety of terrain. But Segway's description is more tentative, characterizing Centaur as "a concept that passed (an) initial feasibility test but is not yet ready to become a product."

Segway spokeswoman Carla Vallone said there's no timeline for development or possible merchandising of the Centaur. "This is a concept that looks like it's feasible but hasn't been through our rigorous testing and safety processes yet," she said.

Vallone said the Centaur information posted on the company's Web site is intended to help gauge market interest. "We're getting feedback from dealers and the general public to identify what the market might be for something like this," she said.

The Centaur description page twice states, "At the present time, Segway LLC has no plans to manufacture or sell this as a product."

If the Centaur does make it to market, though, it could be a lulu. The contraption looks like a cross between a riding lawnmower and an ATV, with four knobby-tired wheels, a banana seat and mountain bike-style handlebars. The device uses the same "dynamic stabilization" technology as Segway's two-wheeled Human Transporter (HT) scooter, allowing a rider to easily lean it onto two wheels for negotiating tight spaces. The Centaur combines the positional control of the HT--lean forward to go forward--with steering and throttle control via the handlebars.

The Segway HT went on sale two years ago amidst Herculean hype, with figures such as CEO Jeff Bezos initially calling it a revolutionary transportation device that would change the way cities are laid out.

Reality has been less kind. The company had sold about 6,000 after a year on the market, before a mandatory recall to upgrade the device's safety software. A number of cities have restricted use of the scooters, saying they're too big and fast for sidewalks and too small and slow for roads.

The Centaur could get around such issues by being positioned as a recreational vehicle rather than an urban transit alternative. The promotional video on Segway's Web site mainly shows the Centaur zipping down country roads, open fields and forest trails.

Segway is upping the ante for existing customers, meanwhile, with a new online store selling accessories for the HT. Options for pimping out your scooter include chrome wheels, a "pedestrian alert" bell and five types of headlight.