The new steering controls on the PT take this concept one step further. To turn the earlier model, the user had to rotate the left handgrip on the T-bar forward or rearward, like a motorcycle throttle. Although the skill is easy to learn, Segway engineers improved on this scheme by installing a "lean-steer" mechanism that allows users to corner by leaning into turns (shifting their weight in a slalomlike fashion) while tilting the handlebar--a much more natural motion. Push the bar all the way over, and the Segway rotates sharply in place, as one wheel advances while the other reverses.
The PT's new, larger lithium-ion battery pack (located under the footpad) can power both Segway models to a maximum speed of 12.5 miles an hour, the same as the initial versions. The i2 goes 16 to 24 miles on a charge, whereas the x2's range is 10 to 12 miles (comparable to that of previous models). Another useful upgrade is a wireless infokey fob that provides a readout for speed and distance traveled and enables a user to start a Segway remotely, control its top speed and rapidly engage the lock/security system.
As with most novel technologies, the Segway has faced a bumpy road. Service as a golf cart might seem like a surefire application, for example. But the two-wheelers have failed to prosper on the links because few golfers know how to use them, whereas anybody can drive a golf cart.
Current users come in three categories, says Barry Fulton, owner of Segway of Long Beach in California. The urban commuter wants to ride the short distance from home to work and back in business dress without having to drive and park a car. The recreational user just likes gliding around for fun or to do chores. This person is typically "a 55- to 75-year-old male with money who wants to let the kids play with it or ride it off his docked yacht." This category also encompasses some travel tourists, who, for instance, can rent a Segway from Fulton to explore the Long Beach shoreline and the HMS Queen Mary for $99 a day.
The third category comprises "commercial" customers, including police departments, security firms, warehouses and companies with large campuses. One of Fulton's clients uses Segways to replenish 85 delivery trucks, parked across a seven-acre plot of land, with vending-machine supplies. In the Midwest, another corporate customer is the security patrol for a large telecommunications firm that operates a 235-acre complex. Rather than walking beats, the crew Segways around the grounds. With Segways, the security chief has been able to shrink his staff, because each member can cover a greater area, and the vehicles have also lengthened the careers of older workers, who were finding the constant walking increasingly difficult. The chief says that the machine's elevated driving position is helpful for handling crowds--each agent sees the surroundings better and is more visible to bystanders.
Despite the improved technology and growing public familiarity, the Segway remains a niche product. Why the resistance? The consensus among sellers and users alike comes down to sticker shock. At $4,000 to $5,500 apiece (a significant fraction of which pays for the batteries), the Segway is simply too pricey for those without a compelling need or use for it. As one observer notes, "Most potential buyers consider it as a fractional car, and at $5K, it just doesn't supply enough utility." Cut that price in half, and sales will spike, dealers claim, but there is little prospect that battery costs will drop precipitously anytime soon.
Gliding around on a Segway is a delight, but you have to wonder whether the technology is a solution chasing a problem. Still, it took a while for the Frisbee to catch on, but the unusual flying disk eventually found its place in the market. Maybe it's only a matter of time until the same thing happens to the Segway.
This article was originally published with the title Power Walker.