Personal transport spinning its wheels

Segway: The public has been slow to hop aboard the $4,500 device, but police departments love it.

April 10, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Segway says its human transporter will take you almost anywhere, replacing a car for short hops and saving the environment to boot. But the fortunes of the motorized scooter's parent company appear to be headed in just one direction: south.

People aren't buying the $4,500 machine in the great quantities expected. A recall last year raised questions about reliability. President Bush fell off one. And theme parks including Walt Disney World and cities such as San Francisco have banned Segways, which travel up to 12 1/2 mph, from sidewalks.

"We're not disappointed it hasn't caught on," said Melanie Brunson, executive director of the American Council of the Blind. "People don't necessarily have as much control over these devices, moving at that rate of speed, as you like to think they would."

Segways went on sale in November 2002 amid projections that more than 50,000 would be sold in the first year. Instead, by September 2003, when all Segways were recalled for a minor repair, just 6,000 had been sold.

New Hampshire-based Segway LLC also reportedly ran through its $100 million start-up money and has been forced to raise $31 million more.

But despite Segway's failure to live up to the initial hype, some in Maryland say it's just catching on. Police at Baltimore-Washington International Airport are wrapping up a favorable two-week trial of the machines, and an entrepreneur in Annapolis plans to begin renting them out this weekend.

"I look at this as the Wright flyer or the Model T or the Apple Computer," said Richard Segar, who bought 10 Segways to rent to tourists in downtown Annapolis. "Once you've ridden it, hopefully you will start to realize that there's another way to do things in life."

Police at BWI say the two Segways they have been trying out, on loan from the Justice Department, have made it easier to do their jobs. They say they can get to emergencies faster, without getting winded, and the Segways encourage people to come up and talk to them.

"It draws people to it and helps develop a rapport with the public that normally isn't there," said Officer Brandon Brookshire. "It makes us very approachable."

Brookshire, a three-year veteran of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, said he's able to respond to calls about three times faster on a Segway than on foot - so he often covers other officers' calls simply because he gets there first.

The Segway is the brainchild of Dean Kamen, an accomplished inventor who has to his credit a portable insulin pump and a wheelchair that climbs stairs. The Segway was supposed to be the future of transportation, ideal for short trips that are too far to walk but too close to drive.

The motor-driven machine works by responding to human balance. When the rider leans forward, sensors and gyroscopes tell the motors to spin the wheels forward. The wheels spin backward when the rider leans backward. The machine stops when the rider stands straight.

Segways are turned by a steering grip that tells one wheel to go faster than another. They can travel at three speeds - 6, 8 or 12 1/2 mph - depending on which of three keys is used. They are battery powered, give off no emissions and must be plugged in to recharge every 15 miles.

Police agencies seem to be the most eager consumers so far. Chicago police bought 28 Segways to use at O'Hare International Airport. Police in Palm Beach County, Fla., have bought a few, as have authorities in Orlando, Fla., and St. Paul, Minn.

"Police have always looked for creative ways to be mobile and bring attention to their presence," said Paul Schnell, spokesman for the St. Paul police. "Officers have said it's been remarkable, the exposure it's brought them and the conversations they've struck up."

Segway has been generous in lending out its machines for agencies to test. The police at the Johns Hopkins University tried them out last fall but didn't have the money to buy any. The Annapolis Police Department was given two to try but can't afford to buy. Segway said to keep them anyway.

"The company wants to promote it, and they've allowed us to keep using them until we can work a purchase out," said Annapolis Police Officer Hal Dalton. "They're fine with an indefinite lend to us because they want to get a foothold in the police business."

Segway officials say the consumer end of the business was slow to take off because there were so few places to buy the transporter. At first, it was for sale only on Amazon.com. Some Brookstone stores - including the one at Columbia Mall - began selling Segways this year and offering free test rides, and Segway is working to establish a dealer network.

The company is also working to secure partners to offer financing through its dealers. An early problem was that most people didn't have $4,500 to plunk down all at once. Officials also expect sales to increase as summer approaches.

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