Spending It: The Ultimate Transportation Toy

Want to have something in common with Kevin Spacey, President Bush and Justin Timberlake? Hop on a Segway.

The Segway Human Transporter is notable for its popularity among celebrities, but at least one ordinary guy — me — can appreciate its appeal.

In late July, Registered Rep. was given a private showing of the Segway and a chance to see what the $4,950 transportation toy is all about. The experience was memorable, if a little rocky at first.

The Segway, first produced in 2001 and introduced to the mass market seven months ago, is an odd contraption — part chariot, part electric car, part physics experiment. With two 2-horsepower electric engines, a top speed of 12.5 miles per hour and a range of about 15 miles, it might best be described as an errand-running vehicle, if utility were its raison d'etre.

But it's probably more accurate to call the two-wheeled wonder “cool” than “useful,” because the Segway is first and foremost a head-turning device — at least in this early stage of its life.

A bit of anecdotal evidence: Alex McGrath, an employee of Registered Rep.'s parent company Primedia, recently spied a Segway while eating in New York City's Carnegie Deli.

“A middle-aged man just rolls right into the restaurant, gets a table for one, leans the thing against his table and sits down like it's nothing,” McGrath says. Meanwhile, “everybody looks at him, and the kids around him were pointing and talking about it.”

The coolness reinforced by the fact that a number of famous people, including Kevin Spacey and Justin Timberlake, are Segway aficionados.

However, as my personal experience attests, there's more to the Segway than image.

The Basics

My test drive got off to a shaky start. I mounted the Segway okay, by stepping on a platform between its two 19 inch custom-crafted Michelin tires. But when I started to put the vehicle in motion, it began to buck and jostle a little in reaction to my shifting center of gravity. The Segway's motor takes its cues from the rider's shifting body weight, not from a traditional throttle, and getting used to this fact can be an unsettling experience.

What you quickly learn, though, is that in order to get anywhere with the Segway, you have to trust it. In some respects, it's not unlike the experience of learning to ride a bicycle. Though the Segway's two-wheel configuration feels unstable at first, it soon settles down.

All that's needed to get the vehicle moving is a lean in the direction you want to travel. The more pronounced your lean-angle, the faster it moves. Stand up straight, and the Segway slows down and pulls up underneath you. Lean backwards, and it rolls in that direction.

The steering, controlled by a throttle-like mechanism located on the left handlebar, is a bit foreign-feeling as well. But it eventually reveals itself to be just as easy to manage as the acceleration. When the steering grip is turned towards your body, the Segway turns right; when it's turned away, the vehicle turns left. Because the wheels are capable of rotating in opposite directions, the Segway has a near-zero turning radius, which is useful for many of the vehicle's everyday applications.

In the middle of the handlebars, which sit atop an adjustable control shaft, is a keypad. The pad sets the Segway's top speed, based on information relayed to it by one of three color-coded keys. The red key is the slowest setting, yellow a little faster for sidewalks and black fastest for open environments. The Segway also has a display showing the energy level in the dual nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) rechargeable batteries.

The batteries sit inside the Segway's chassis, which contains two controller boards featuring sensors that turn a rider's gravitational shifts into commands for the wheels to follow. The Balance Safety Assembly, containing five gyroscopes and two tilt sensors, reside between the two boards. GE Plastics, Delphi Automotive Systems, Pacific Scientific, Saft, and Silicon Sensing Systems each designed parts of the innards.

Taking It for a Spin

Armed with a basic understanding of the controls and the machine's physics, I began zipping through New York's Marriott Marquis hotel. When I finished with the small obstacle course the Segway's marketing people had built, I was hooked.

I was also convinced of the device's usefulness. Though some of the proposed applications for Segway are slightly ridiculous (riding it to a co-worker's desk comes to mind), it makes for a fun, convenient alternative to driving short distances, particularly in an urban environment. It eliminates the headaches associated with parking, and it is a zero emissions vehicle.

Several organizations are looking into deploying Segways for professional applications. The New York Police Department is in the midst of a 60-day feasibility trial (a real New York Post Headline: “Stop or I'll Scoot”), and a French transportation company, Keolis, plans to rent Segways as a way to improve movement between far-flung Metro stations.

Still, the Segway faces some weighty obstacles to general acceptance. For starters, there's that price tag.

But even for those who can get past that, there are some legal limits to their use. In New York, for instance, Segways lack Dept. of Transportation approval, and thus are not approved for on-road use.

Segway's handlers say legal obstacles are dissipating. To date 40 states have enacted general Electric Personal Assistive Mobility Device (EPAMD) laws that allow the Segway HT to be used (though 31 of those states permit additional local regulations, which could work against it).

Still, if you're in the market for a gadget that's fun, useful and attention-grabbing, it's hard to top the Segway.

Writer's BIO: Nigel Goodman is a summer intern for Registered Rep. who recently began attending Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

Where to get it

Online: Amazon.com Segway.com

Phone: 1-866-4SEGWAY

Stores: J.M. Lexus, Margate, Fla. Sporty's, Batavia, Ohio Segway of Texas, Houston Segway Exp

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