IN LATE 2001, US inventor Dean Kamen prophesied: “I would stake my reputation, my money and my time on the fact that 10 years from now, this will be the way many people in many places get around.” The occasion was the unveiling of his fantastic self-balancing pedestrian platform, the Segway.
Fourteen years down the footpath, the Segway is running well short of its inventor’s expectations. The recent popularity of electric bicycles and the emergence of cheap, toy-like hoverboards and self-balancing unicycles would seem to be threatening to consign the sophisticated Segway to history.
Owen Williams says it ain’t so. The director of Segway Tours WA and Segway Distributors Australia says that, if anything, the popularity of electric bikes – which he also sells – is renewing focus on the original and best alternative personal transporter.
Perth-based Williams first learned of Segway on a trip to the US in 2004. “I came across one of the first Segway tours, in Washington DC, took a ride and was absolutely hooked,” he says. He took on distribution for WA, SA, Victoria and Tasmania in 2007.
“The grand vision was that a lot of people would assess how far they have to walk, or go in a motor vehicle, and they could see an alternative in this,” Williams says. “Even though a Segway costs a bit of money, these people don’t pay for fuel, parking, any of that stuff – and it costs less than 50 cents to charge it overnight.”
The current Segway range comprises two models, the commuter-spec I2 SE (from $9300) and all-terrain X2 SE (from $10,300). A huge range of accessories can transform it from golf cart to mall-cop cruiser. Top speed is 20km/h, though they’re more often governed to 10km/h, and touring range is 30-40km/h, depending on model and terrain.
“The Segway has traction control, antiskid, all that,” says Williams. “There are so many redundancy systems, the machine will never, ever fall over because it’s got two lots of systems running at any time.
“Electric bikes are helping Segway because people want to have choice. A Segway is basically effortless. You can have your suit and briefcase and ride to work on it without getting sweaty.”
So far, the Segway has gained most traction in tourist use, with around 25 tour companies in Australia each typically running a 10-strong fleet.
The Segway’s biggest obstacle has been to try and overcome early resistance to its categorydefying format.
“Changing the laws has been difficult, because each state has its own process,” Williams says. “The hardest thing with the legal boffins is: Where does it fit into the legal system? Is it a motor vehicle? Is it a bike? Is it a pedestrian? For close on five years it was just too hard for them.”
Williams believes the Segway’s time has finally come, with Queensland having legalised them, ACT and Tasmania working on a permit system, and WA creating a new classification, Electronic Personal Transporter, for existing and future devices.
“Hopefully, around mid-2016, all the States will align,” Williams says. “And that’s not only Segways, but to do with alternative methods of transport … They can’t say no. There’s a bit of a wave happening all around the world, because people don’t want to use their cars anymore.”
RIDING a Segway is like walking while you’re standing still. “Dean Kamen designed it for the way we walk, which is by leaning forwards,” says Owen Williams. “Stand still and the balance comes back; equal balance in the front and back of your feet, and that’s how you stop on a Segway.”