Taking Ginger for a test drive

Dean Kamen likens his newly unveiled Human Transporter to a pair of magic sneakers. It's fun to ride, but the price may have some saying they'd rather walk.

John G. Spooner Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Spooner
covers the PC market, chips and automotive technology.
John G. Spooner
8 min read
MANCHESTER, N.H.--Segway, maker of the newly, and now mundanely, christened Human Transporter, likens its forthcoming two-wheeled device to a pair of magic sneakers. But the machine's price tag may have many potential buyers saying they'd rather walk.

Curious about whether the machine formerly known as Ginger lives up to its price and the tidal wave of prelaunch hype, and about what its inventor, Dean Kamen, has to say now that the long-secret machine is out in the open, CNET News.com sent me on a visit to Segway's headquarters here.

The bottom line? Segway has built a machine that's both fun and nearly effortless to ride. A commuter should be able to scoot to work on a hot summer day and never break a sweat. The learning curve is minimal, and taking curves is as simple as a flick of the wrist.

But riders will have to bundle up to run errands in the rain or snow--the machine offers no shelter from the elements. And forget about bringing home groceries, since the two-wheeler provides little more in the way of built-in storage than its owner's pockets.

And given the machine's price tag of $8,000 to $10,000 now for early, commercial versions, and perhaps $3,000 late next year for a consumer model, Segway does need to think about a payment plan.

I took my test drive on the device--known in its secretive phase as Ginger and, less fetchingly, as It--on a clear, 40-degree day amid a host of Segway engineers zipping around inside the company's lab and the adjoining parking lot. When mounted up, the riders look something like the robot Johnny 5 from the movie "Short Circuit."

Segway's 100 employees are spread out over two former mill buildings along the Merrimack River. The buildings include the company's corporate offices as well as its large research and development stress-test lab, which incorporates an obstacle course of plywood ramps, sets of stairs, various bumps and jumps, and 6-inch-high enclosures filled with rocks, dirt and cobblestones. The factory that soon will be cranking out the Human Transporters is located about five miles away in the town of Bedford.

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Safety first
Finishing up with a film crew from the Discovery Channel, Kamen zips in on his "HT" dressed in a fleece jacket, blue shirt and jeans. He seems about seven-and-a-half feet tall on the machine, which looks an awful lot like an old-fashioned, unmotorized push lawnmower, or a Radio Flyer wagon that's missing the rear wheels--and the wagon itself. Even before he dismounts, we shake hands, and then he nudges the scooter against me to show me how it reacts when it comes in contact with someone. It stops.

Kamen explains that once the machine's "control stalk" moves backward a certain distance, the Segway device stops. It's a safety feature designed to reduce injury, should one come in contact with a pedestrian--or a tree. At this rather pedestrian speed, the feature appears to work well. I am no worse for the wear.

Manchester, about 50 miles north of Boston, has its share of technology: Texas Instruments and software maker AutoDesk maintain offices there. But Kamen says he likes New Hampshire for other reasons, mainly its low taxes and its freethinking. It is, after all, the "Live Free or Die" state.

"Its infrastructure is young and new, and I think it's conducive to creativity," Kamen said.

Meanwhile, with Manchester's proximity to Boston, and therefore some of the most highly regarded colleges on the East Coast, Segway can recruit top engineering talent. It helps that Kamen is a visiting lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With his HT plugged in and charging--it typically gets about 11 miles to the charge, and as much as 17--we grab a corner of the R&D lab to chat.

Kamen explains that the technology for the HT came from a similar machine, dubbed IBOT, a six-wheeled system he designed to help make physically disabled people more mobile. But the HT addresses a more widespread problem, that of moving efficiently throughout an urban setting.

"We've used technology to solve all of the long-haul problems," Kamen said, listing planes, trains and automobiles as methods of hauling people and freight over long distances at high speeds.

"But when we finally come back to the pedestrian...the (only) technology we've added in the last 5,000 years is a pair of sandals," he said, ignoring for the moment the merits of Air Jordans. "The big idea here is two things. Technology, which is really neat. It's also that we're building on the most fundamental element of society, the sidewalk, and the ability to walk around."

Magic sneakers
Segway's HT, Kamen says, fits into a new category between a pair of sneakers and a bicycle.

"We don't compete with a bicycle," he said. That old-fashioned two-wheel technology, he argues, can't go where the Segway HT can, which is on a city sidewalk. The HT is designed to be no wider than a person's shoulders, allowing for easy maneuverability, and it moves along no faster than a marathon runner, hitting a maximum of 12.5 miles per hour.

Scooting by
The Segway Human Transporter isn't an average scooter by any means.
Top speed: 12.5mph
Range: Up to 17 miles
Turning radius: None. Can rotate 360 degrees in place.
Platform height: 8 inches
Width: 19 inches
Length: 25 inches
Weight: 80 pounds
Cost: initially $8,000 to $10,000
Meanwhile, the HT is "designed so that if two people bump into each other, they probably won't get hurt," Kamen said.

"We think this competes with sneakers," he said. "This is a magic pair of sneakers."

As my visit moves on from conversation to demonstration, staffers at Segway's R&D center are concerned that several HTs are dirty, wiping them down to remove evidence of their use and abuse in the facility. But, if you ask me, dirt doesn't hurt. These machines are likely to get very dirty in the real world.

Though the base on which the rider stands is only eight inches high, the first tentative step up seems a lot higher. Once I'm on, the Segway shifts back and forth a tiny bit, like it's hunting for equilibrium. This is, in fact, what it's doing. Though it can be somewhat startling initially, both rider and machine have to get used to each other, the engineers explain. Once the HT and the rider's sense of balance get acquainted--and they do so very quickly--it's time to ride.

Kamen, obviously please to be showing the device to a newbie, explains that it's better to grab the handlebar with one hand first, before getting on. I get off, put my right hand on, step up first with my right foot and then with my left. This time, the HT moves back quickly, and I realize that I have my left foot on only about halfway. The machine is reacting normally. I'm the one who was out of balance.

So let's roll: Once you get used to standing on the machine--it took me only a couple of minutes to feel comfortable--you simply lean forward slightly to move forward, and you straighten up to slow and stop. The machine responds to the slightest input. Helmeted, I take several laps along the far wall of the R&D center, flanked on one side by a Segway engineer and on the other by my PR handler. At the end of each lap, I turn on a dime and head in the other direction. (You could also lean backward to move in reverse, if you want. But it's a lot easier to rotate the machine 180 degrees and move forward.)

Standing still on the machine, I notice a very slight back-and-forth wobble. But if I lean backward or forward too far, the machine moves to stay underneath me. It works as its own safety net--imagine trying to balance a ruler on the palm of your hand, and succeeding.

The HT hardly makes a sound. It uses a pair of electric motors connected to large plastic wheels with rubber tires. The wheels can spin independently, and in different directions to rotate the machine 360 degrees in place. Tilt sensors and five gyroscopes monitor a rider's center of gravity and let the motors know which way to propel the device. A twist grip on the lefthand side of the HT's handlebars provides steering input. A red button brings the machine to a halt. I suggest they add a horn button on the other side.

When they ask if I've had enough, I say sure. But I'd have rather ridden around some more, maybe taken the Human Transporter tour of Manchester. I dismount, anyway.

A high-tech three-speed
For the moment, the HT seems destined to operate in one of several preprogrammed performance modes--for a beginner, for city cruising and for full-out motoring. The modes would be coordinated with the HT's 128-bit "key," which must be presented to turns the machine on.

Most of the Segway folks appeared to be motoring in all-out mode. In fact, one of the ramps inside the R&D facility looks suspiciously like a skateboarder's half pipe. It's doubtful that the company would recommend you try that at home, though.

I'm a go-fast guy myself, a rollerblader, skier and auto racer. But I think that just about anyone could get used to riding Segway's HT. If that "anyone" starts to shape up into "everyone"--a big if right now--the potential for an aftermarket in HT accessories is huge. The potential for bolt-on high-performance parts is probably a little slimmer, however.

There will be items that make the machine more useful. Segway is already working on storage pouches and a trailer. But I think that people would naturally want to customize their HTs the way they do a car. Maybe we'll see custom colors and chrome wheel covers. Fuzzy dice can't be that far in the future.

Companies and government agencies will likely see uses for the Segway HT, which makes sense for day-to-day operations in large warehouses or on mail routes. In fact, the U.S. Postal Service is among those testing the machine, as is the Boston Police Department.

A golf cart or jitney might be available for less than an $8,000 HT, but the Segway machine is more maneuverable and less obtrusive.

Segway will begin delivering a heavier-duty commercial version of the HT to customers early next year. Volume production should commence later in the first quarter of 2002.

But the rest of us shouldn't rush to get out our checkbooks just yet. The consumer version of the HT device isn't likely to be available before the fourth quarter of 2002, the company has said.

The big question is whether the average person will pony up the estimated $3,000 to own a consumer version of the HT. That's a steep price in these uncertain times. But many people will pay that much for all sorts of devices, like a high-end lawn tractor with cup holders, if they think they can benefit from it. After all, some people paid that much for a 286-based PC.