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Reinventing The Wheel, Slowly


Segway, the company started by noted inventor Dean Kamen with the modest goal of changing the way the world moves on two feet, recently introduced two new models of its "personal transporter." If you missed it, you're forgiven. It was an announcement met with an impressive silence.

The first Segway -- a clean-running, technologically dumbfounding, fun-as-hell-to-ride device that was pretty much impossible to fall off of -- was introduced to so much fanfare five years ago that the public-relations agency that helped engineer it still uses it as a case study in how to create a media frenzy. It may be an even better case study in media backlash. The initial euphoria had hardly worn off before a new consensus emerged: This was all much ado about a $5,000 scooter. Journalists liked riding it, but they couldn't figure out who would buy it. John Doerr, the Silicon Valley eminence who backed it, had said entire cities would be redesigned around it. Instead, The Washington Post (WPO) soon was calling it "The Invention That Runs on Hype."

Kamen says every invention is a response to a problem. But the problem he wanted to solve -- the need for a clean, energy efficient vehicle that could coexist with pedestrians and replace the car in the world's cities -- was one that others didn't see.

FUTURE AGNOSTIC

In predicting the future of technology, the hardest part might not be envisioning what can be invented, but determining what will be needed. There's an awful lot of amazing technology in the personal transporter, which is powered by computer-controlled electric motors that automatically keep the machine in balance in response to bumps in the road and the rider's movements. Still, when it comes to clean, inexpensive, one-person transportation, for many people a bike does just fine. Disabled users swear by the Segway, and police departments have adopted it, but that doesn't make the personal transporter the game changer Kamen imagined. Thousands have sold, but not nearly as many as Segway hoped for.

Writing off Segway, however, would be a big mistake. After all the hype and counterhype, there's still time for a very different second act. Kamen's vision of Segway was focused on the two-wheeled personal transporter. But James D. Norrod, the chief executive recruited a year and a half ago by Doerr, is pushing the company toward a much more expansive view of what Segway is about.

"I look at the technology," says Norrod, "and ask, 'Where else can it be used?"' Norrod's approach is what you can think of as "future agnostic." In his view, Segway needn't define a whole new urban ecology or replace the car. It can put its technology into anything that moves. That means unmanned vehicles with potential military or industrial uses, or multiperson vehicles that use Segway's computers and electric engines to glide smoothly over obstacles. And Norrod thinks Segway's efficient electric motors could be central to a new generation of hybrid cars (yes, cars). Segway has already built a four-wheeled, multiperson prototype. "If people want four wheels," says Norrod, "I should give 'em four wheels."

It's not the vision Kamen originally had. Still the chairman of Segway, he had hoped to offer the grand solution to the problems of urban traffic and pollution. Instead, his technology offers the solution to a myriad of less all encompassing but still very important problems. "Life," Kamen says, "is too short for incrementalism." It's a big statement, and, put simply, untrue. Incrementalism might not inspire an initial burst of invention (Kamen is definitely the expert on that), but it's a pretty good description of how inventions actually make it into the real world when the publicity is gone.

By Mark Gimein


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