Dean Kamen, an award-winning design engineer with hundreds of patents and revolutionary products. The invention was codenamed IT or Ginger and had received the endorsement of Steve Jobs of Apple and Jeff Bezos of Amazon. No small achievement.
IT turned out to be as rumored: an electric, self-balancing human transporter with a complex, computer-controlled gyroscopic stabilization and control system. The remarkable device senses and responds to subtle body movement and can even be controlled hands-free. Kamen claimed that the Segway "will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy." Many predicted a billion-dollar industry overnight and nothing short of a world-changing technology.
Perhaps the only thing more arrogant than the claims of Dean Kamen about the future impact of the Segway was my email to him, explaining point by point why the Segway would fail in cities and certainly in New York. I received a return email confirmation stating that they would follow up and answer my objections, which they did not do.
I say arrogant because I am not an engineer, nor do I claim to be an expert prognosticator of such events. There have been numerous analyses as to the reason for the Segway's failure when viewed in hindsight. But even at the time of the product launch, my gut feel told me that there were way too many obvious problems which would prevent the Segway from large-scale adoption anywhere, particularly in a place like New York City.
One was price - $5000. This will make it a deal breaker for nearly everyone. After all, this is not an enclosed vehicle capable of carrying a load and passengers. It is just a motorized two-wheel device. I also believed that people would vandalize them and steal them.
Another big issue was weight - 80 pounds. There are many stairways in New York City. Who will carry an 80-pound device up and down them?
The vehicle did not have a very long battery life. Charging for most people would be burdensome here.
Then there is the huge problem of what to do at your destination. This is has been a problem for bicyclists for as long as I have lived in this city. How many will want to leave a $5000 vehicle on the streets? Will offices and retailers allow these to be brought inside? Hardly.
Also, regardless of claims to the contrary, there is no way these will be allowed to be used on crowded streets and sidewalks in New York City. They may be compact and marvelously maneuverable, but the sidewalks are often too packed, even for unencumbered pedestrians. How will the Segways fit in?
The Segway did turn out to be a commercial failure, relegated to a small number of users in niche situations - some postal carriers on certain routes, etc. In 2009, Time Magazine declared it one of the 10 biggest tech failures of the decade.
All the claims of Kamen seemed so obviously made by someone devoid of any real world experience of living in New York City. This wealthy, inventive genius and visionary lives in a mansion in a small town in New Hampshire, with his own helicopter hangared in his garage. He owns his own private island off the coast of Connecticut - North Dumpling Island - and travels there using his helicopter. This is a highly privileged life in remote, unpopulated locations.
Perhaps once a year I may see someone cruising the streets of New York City on one of these devices. Segway, anyone?
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