15 September, 2006

Body counts

Since the Segway was introduced, its makers have been reticent about sales figures. So reticent, that some have speculated they may have been embarrased into silence.* After all, before the grand rollout on national TV, the company built a New Hampshire factory scaled to produce almost a half-million of the devices a year.

Yesterday the Consumer Product Safety Commission ordered a recall of every Segway in the country for a software fix. They had the bad taste to say how many specimens were affected: "about 23,500."

Let's see. According to some people on the Internets, annual global bicycle production is about 100 million units. Since a year is about 8,766 hours, that works out to about about 11,400 bikes per hour which means that every two hours, the world builds as many new bikes as Segway has built scooters in almost five years.

Hooray bikes! Boo, $100 million techno fix for a nonexistent problem!

* Segway's reticence reminds me of this guy talking about the membership of his group which appears likely to stop San Francisco's bike plan. He won't reveal the number except to say it's "more than one."

Speaking of which, when will these guys start spending their billions purifying drinking water for the children of Mexico instead of filling Mexico's aquifers with rocket fuel for the sake of their phallic overcompensation complexes?


maybe i helped kill them. i spoke eloquently myself and helped craft the official transportation-NGO speech at the local segways-on-the-sidewalk hearing. mwa ha ha ha ha. 

Posted by hibiscus

For health reasons, I can't ride a bike. Most people I know in my situation drive cars, especially if they became disabled after they could drive. (I don't and didn't.) "Ride a bike" is less-than-helpful advice. The segway, even though I don't think I could use it, looks like a pretty innovative way of getting somebody like me the same freedom to move around that able-bodied people have.

Now, I understand that the target of your criticism is the hype and the company, and I agree bicycles are wonderful for many people. But to somebody like me, your post sounds a tad on the contemptful side. Would you think I was ridiculous if you saw me riding a Segway on the streets?

Posted by Dan

Dan, that's a bit disingenuous - the vast majority of car users are able-bodied, and I'm sure most bike advocates don't mean to express contempt for the disabled. And at least hedgehog would readily concede that car-free living is not possible in the modern world, so I don't read the above as a flip of the bird to disabled people. Yes, obviously, one must consider the special needs of the disabled, but this doesn't mean that one should reject viable alternatives for the remainder. The Segway was marketed as a car/scooter juxtaposition - "Ride a Segway instead of driving a car!", not, "Ride a Segway instead of driving a car if you're unable to ride a bike!" Frankly I think Kamen miscalculated badly - I don't understand how he ever imagined the Segway would be wildly popular or revolutionary when bikes are a much cheaper and superior alternative for the great majority of people. 

Posted by saurabh

I don't think Hedgehog intended any slight to disabled people. I agree that Kamen miscalculated badly if he thought a segway could get many people out of cars when bikes can't.

I think it was the "nonexistent problem" thing that raised my eyebrows though. It's actually a $100m fix to a different problem than the one they're marketing at. 

Posted by Dan

Dan, you're sort of right in that last comment. I heard at the time that the Segway was a side project from the real work of making a wheelchair that could climb stairs and otherwise navigate all terrain, which would be a tremendous boon for millions of people. I appreciate that and wish him well in completing that project.

I have been contemptuous of Kamen from the beginning not for his invention but for his hubris. He talked up this invention until it could be rolled out on the Today show and then sent lobbyists into every state to get the devices enshrined in law as being legally equivalent to pedestrians and bicycles and therefore able to use both sidewalks and bike paths. Because of these actions -- the excessive egotism in the hype and the presumptuousness of the stealthy, speedy legislative campaign -- it gives me schadenfreude to see him taken down so many notches.

Even some of the specialized uses they have been put to seem silly. Like I don't understand why cops are better off on them than on a bike. They are just as hard on the body, much slower, much heavier, need to be recharged regularly. The one advantage I always hear cited is that they put cops' heads above the heads of other people in a crowd, giving them better vantage points. To do this on a bike, they'd have to stand up on the pedals. Not such a big deal.

At the same time, I'm happy to grant that the devices are technologically remarkable and that they can be very useful in certain circumstances. I've heard that EMTs in big crowds find them useful for lugging heavy oxygen tanks; the Post Office was planning to use them for door-to-door delivery (I don't know if that ever panned out). And regardless, I don't scoff at people I see riding them any more than I scoff at those who drive very large cars or fixed-gear bikes or other vehicles that probably don't make much sense for many people. I figure everyone has his or her reasons.  

Posted by hedgehog

the wheelchair was f***ing unreal. i loved those demo videos. way cooler than those dumb mechadogs or "the adventures of frisbee, robo-hoover of the future!"

if the segway had a forklift attachment it would definitely have sold better.

side note: why do people still suspect that transportation geeks want to leave mobility impaired folks locked in the basement? it's unreasonable. if someone is talking about a new device for transportation, they're talking about using it for mass transit, not paratransit or the like. they're talking about trying to solve the carbon problem, the danger problem, the space problem, the point-non-point poison problem, the economics, etc. 

Posted by hibiscus

Hedgehog: I won't deny you schaudenfraude. Kamen promises a lot of an awkward-looking device.

Saurabh: "the vast majority of car users are able-bodied": actually, I think this is the exact attitude I was looking to counteract. Check out these stats . 15% of noninstitutionalized adults have physical functioning difficulty, half that many are either unable to or have much difficulty walking 1/4 mile. Now, 85% may or may not be the "vast majority", but 31.7m is not a small market (if the segway were actually useful) and that's just the U.S. alone.

Hibiscus: "if someone is talking about a new device for transportation, they're talking about using it for mass transit, not paratransit or the like": The post specifically booed the segway for fixing a non-existent problem. I pointed out that (if it actually worked well, I have no idea), it fixes an enormous problem for a pretty large portion of the population. Bikes might be a better solution to the problems you mentioned. I just want to make sure that the baby (potentially useful invention) doesn't get thrown out with the bathwater (Kamen's hubris). 

Posted by Dan

dan: if the medical/assistive aspects of the invention merit its cost, it won't be thrown out. it seems to be about $3,000 more than a well-equipped cart. (or 3x the price.)

follow that stats link to the data of the report. this is from table 18. start with 31.7m with "any physical difficulty." of the 18.5m people under 65 in that group, only 7.5m have trouble walking. meanwhile 10m have trouble standing.

the table does not say how many of the people who have no trouble standing are obese. segway max capacity is 250lbs.

considering the weight of the segway (70lbs) compared to the weight of individual parts of a scooter (35-50lbs), this doesn't look like a competitive piece of equipment.

every piece of promotional material and every talking head pushing these things was describing them as though they were bikes. everything you could do with them was a bike-like task, except they were 50lbs heavier, needed to be plugged in, and didn't make you healthy. probably the target pop for that redundant and eco-negligent market plan was 10-20x the size of the maximum medical market if we go by the NHIS results.

must go to bed now. apologies if this is incomplete, rude, or incomprehensible. 

Posted by hibiscus

yes i am saying that the population over 65 is not a target market. a 70lb vehicle that requires balance and dexterity to operate is not intended for elders. 

Posted by hibiscus

I almost exclusively associate Segways with Job from Arrested Develeopment , and therefore have no real opinion on this topic, but :

a 70lb vehicle that requires balance and dexterity to operate is not intended for elders.

I thought the whole point of the gyroscopy was that it *didn't* require balancing skills? 

Posted by Saheli

to keep them upright, no, no effort needed. to keep yourself standing on them as they move takes some internal compensation. it's more head balance than muscle balance but there are bits of both. sort of like standing on a boat, only more mild. 

Posted by hibiscus

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