• Tech

Reinventing the Wheel

21 minute read
John Heilemann

“Come to me!”

On a quiet Sunday morning in Silicon Valley, I am standing atop a machine code-named Ginger — a machine that may be the most eagerly awaited and wildly, if inadvertently, hyped high-tech product since the Apple Macintosh. Fifty feet away, Ginger’s diminutive inventor, Dean Kamen, is offering instruction on how to use it, which in this case means waving his hands and barking out orders.

MAXIMUM SPEED: 5 m.p.h. to 17 m.p.h., depending on settings

RANGE: About 17 miles per battery charge on level ground; decelerating or going downhill generates electricity, extending its range

RECHARGE TIME: One hour of charge for two hours of operation

PAYLOAD: Passenger — 250 lbs. Cargo — 75 lbs.

WEIGHT: 65 or 80 lbs., depending on the model

“Just lean forward,” Kamen commands, so I do, and instantly I start rolling across the concrete right at him.

“Now, stop,” Kamen says. How? This thing has no brakes. “Just think about stopping.” Staring into the middle distance, I conjure an image of a red stop sign–and just like that, Ginger and I come to a halt.

“Now think about backing up.” Once again, I follow instructions, and soon I glide in reverse to where I started. With a twist of the wrist, I pirouette in place, and no matter which way I lean or how hard, Ginger refuses to let me fall over. What’s going on here is all perfectly explicable–the machine is sensing and reacting to subtle shifts in my balance–but for the moment I am slack-jawed, baffled. It was Arthur C. Clarke who famously observed that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” By that standard, Ginger is advanced indeed.

Since last January it has also been the tech world’s most-speculated-about secret. That was when a book proposal about Ginger, a.k.a. “IT,” got leaked to the website Inside.com. Kamen had been working on Ginger for more than a decade, and although the author (with whom the inventor is no longer collaborating) never revealed what Ginger was, his precis included over-the-top assessments from some of Silicon Valley’s mightiest kingpins. As big a deal as the PC, said Steve Jobs; maybe bigger than the Internet, said John Doerr, the venture capitalist behind Netscape, Amazon.com and now Ginger.

In a heartbeat, hundreds of stories full of fevered theorizing gushed forth in the press. Ginger was a hydrogen-powered hovercraft. Or a magnetic antigravity device. Or, closer to the mark, a souped-up scooter. Even the reprobates at South Park got into the act, spoofing Ginger in a recent episode–the details of which, sadly, are unprintable in a family magazine.

This week the guessing game comes to an end as Kamen unveils his baby under its official name: Segway. Given the buildup, some are bound to be disappointed. (“It won’t beam you to Mars or turn lead into gold,” shrugs Kamen. “So sue me.”) But there is no denying that the Segway is an engineering marvel. Developed at a cost of more than $100 million, Kamen’s vehicle is a complex bundle of hardware and software that mimics the human body’s ability to maintain its balance. Not only does it have no brakes, it also has no engine, no throttle, no gearshift and no steering wheel. And it can carry the average rider for a full day, nonstop, on only five cents’ worth of electricity.

The commercial ambitions of Kamen and his team are as advanced as their technical virtuosity. By stealing a slice of the $300 billion-plus transportation industry, Doerr predicts, the Segway Co. will be the fastest outfit in history to reach $1 billion in sales. To get there, the firm has erected a 77,000-sq.-ft. factory a few miles from its Manchester, N.H., headquarters that will be capable of churning out 40,000 Segways a month by the end of next year.

Kamen’s aspirations are even grander than that. He believes the Segway “will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.” He imagines them everywhere: in parks and at Disneyland, on battlefields and factory floors, but especially on downtown sidewalks from Seattle to Shanghai. “Cars are great for going long distances,” Kamen says, “but it makes no sense at all for people in cities to use a 4,000-lb. piece of metal to haul their 150-lb. asses around town.” In the future he envisions, cars will be banished from urban centers to make room for millions of “empowered pedestrians”–empowered, naturally, by Kamen’s brainchild.

Kamen’s dream of a Segway-saturated world won’t come true overnight. In fact, ordinary folks won’t be able to buy the machines for at least a year, when a consumer model is expected to go on sale for about $3,000. For now, the first customers to test the Segway will be deep-pocketed institutions such as the U.S. Postal Service and General Electric, the National Parks Service and Amazon.com–institutions capable of shelling out about $8,000 apiece for industrial-strength models. And Kamen’s dreamworld won’t arrive at all unless he and his team can navigate the array of obstacles that are sure to be thrown up by competitors and ever cautious regulators.

For the past three months, Kamen has allowed TIME behind the veil of secrecy as he and his team grappled with the questions that they will confront–about everything from safety and pricing to the challenges of launching a product with the country at war and the economy in recession. Some of their answers were smooth and assured; others less polished. But one thing was clear. As Kamen sees it, all these issues will quickly fade if the question most people ask about the Segway is “How do I get one?”

Fred and Ginger
The world of technology has never been short of eccentrics and obsessives, of rich, brilliant oddballs with strange habits and stranger hobbies. But even in this crowd, Dean Kamen stands out. The 50-year-old son of a comic-book artist, he is a college dropout, a self-taught physicist and mechanical engineer with a handful of honorary doctorates, a multimillionaire who wears the same outfit for every occasion: blue jeans, a blue work shirt and a pair of Timberland boots. With the accent of his native Long Island, he speaks slowly, passionately–and endlessly. “If you ask Dean the time,” Doerr chides, “he’ll first explain the theory of general relativity, then how to build an atomic clock, and then, maybe, he’ll tell you what time it is.”

A bachelor, Kamen lives near Manchester in a hexagonally shaped, 32,000-sq.-ft. house he designed. Outside, there’s a giant wind turbine to generate power and a fully lighted baseball diamond; in the basement, a foundry and a machine shop. Kamen’s vehicles include a Hummer, a Porsche and two helicopters–both of which he helped design and one of which he uses to commute to work each day. He also owns an island off the coast of Connecticut. He calls it North Dumpling, and he considers it a sovereign state. It has a flag, a navy, a currency (one bill has the value of pi) and a mutual nonaggression pact with the U.S., signed by Kamen and the first President Bush (as a joke, we think).

But if Kamen’s personality is half Willy Wonka, the other half is closer to Thomas Edison. While he was still struggling in college, Kamen invented the first drug-infusion pump, which enabled doctors to deliver steady, reliable doses to patients. In the years that followed, he invented the first portable insulin pump, the first portable dialysis machine and an array of heart stents, one of which now resides inside Vice President Dick Cheney. This string of successes established Kamen’s reputation, made him wealthy and turned DEKA Research–the R.-and-D. lab he founded nearly 20 years ago, in which he and 200 engineers work along the banks of the Merrimack River–into a kind of Mecca for medical-device design.

The seeds of Ginger were planted at DEKA by what had previously been Kamen’s best-known project: the IBOT wheelchair. Developed for and funded by Johnson & Johnson, the IBOT is Kamen’s bid to “give the disabled the same kind of mobility the rest of us take for granted”–a six-wheel machine that goes up and down curbs, cruises effortlessly through sand or gravel, and even climbs stairs. More amazing still, the IBOT features something called standing mode, in which it rises up on its wheels and lifts its occupant to eye level while maintaining balance with such stability that it can’t be knocked over even by a violent shove. Kamen gets annoyed when the IBOT is called a wheelchair. It is, he says, “the world’s most sophisticated robot.”

As Kamen and his team were working on the IBOT, it dawned on them that they were onto something bigger. “We realized we could build a device using very similar technology that could impact how everybody gets around,” he says. The IBot was also the source of Ginger’s mysterious code name. “Watching the IBOT, we used to say, ‘Look at that light, graceful robot, dancing up the stairs’–so we started referring to it as Fred Upstairs, after Fred Astaire,” Kamen recalls. “After we built Fred, it was only natural to name its smaller partner Ginger.”

With Ginger, as with the IBOT, Kamen explains, “the big idea is to put a human being into a system where the machine acts as an extension of your body.” On first inspection, balancing on Ginger seems only slightly more feasible than balancing on a barbell. But what Kamen is talking about is the way Ginger does the balancing for you. Lean forward, go forward; lean back, go back; turn by twisting your wrist. The experience is the same going uphill, downhill or across any kind of terrain — even ice. It is nothing like riding a bike or a motorcycle. Instead, in the words of Vern Loucks, the former chairman of Baxter International and a Segway board member, “it’s like skiing without the snow.”

Exactly how the Segway achieves this effect isn’t easy to explain; Kamen’s first stab at it involves a blizzard of equations. Eventually, though, he offers this: “When you walk, you’re really in what’s called a controlled fall. You off-balance yourself, putting one foot in front of the other and falling onto them over and over again. In the same way, when you use a Segway, there’s a gyroscope that acts like your inner ear, a computer that acts like your brain, motors that act like your muscles, wheels that act like your feet. Suddenly, you feel like you have on a pair of magic sneakers, and instead of falling forward, you go sailing across the room.”

Pulling off this trick requires an unholy amount of computer power. In every Segway there are 10 microprocessors cranking out three PCs’ worth of juice. Also a cluster of aviation-grade gyros, an accelerometer, a bevy of sensors, two batteries and software so sophisticated it puts Microsoft to shame. If Kamen gets irked when the IBOT is called a wheelchair, imagine his pique when–if–the Segway is called a scooter.

Fish and Bicycles
The possibility that the segway will be viewed as simply a high-end toy, a jet ski on wheels, is one of Kamen’s greatest concerns, especially after Sept. 11. He wants his machine taken seriously, as a serious solution to serious problems. That anxiety was one of the reasons he and his team decided to concentrate at first on major corporations, universities and government agencies–large, solid, established institutions–rather than dive straight into the consumer marketplace.

Whether such institutions would embrace Segways, however, was an open question. Before last January’s leak, Kamen had demoed his invention only when absolutely necessary, or for luminaries such as Steve Jobs and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. After the leak, he became even pickier. He entertained the Postmaster General, who was keen to put letter carriers on Segways, and the head of the National Parks Service, who wanted to do the same with park rangers and police. (Both are among Segway’s first customers.) Kamen also stirred up interest at the Department of Defense, which was intrigued by the notion of giving Segways to special forces, and at Federal Express. But few other potential customers were allowed to pass through DEKA’s tightly sealed doors.

A few weeks ago, with the launch approaching, Kamen began to let some others in. The Boston police department sent a clutch of cops to Manchester. The city of Atlanta sent a contingent of city planners. And Thanksgiving week, Kamen took his act to California. In one jam-packed day in Silicon Valley, he revealed the Segway to officials from San Francisco International Airport, the California department of transportation, the city of Palo Alto, Stanford University and Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers. Especially gratifying to Kamen was the reaction of Andy Grove, the chairman of Intel and, unlike so many Silicon Valley boosters, a bone-deep skeptic. Perched tentatively on the machine, the 65-year-old Grove was rolling slowly along when Doerr ambled over and pushed him in the chest. When the Segway kept him from losing his balance, Grove emitted a distinctly un-Grove-like giggle. “The machine is gorgeous,” he said later. “I’m no good at balancing; it would take me a hundred years to learn to snowboard. This took me less than five minutes.”

I asked Grove what he thought of the Segway as a business. “The consumer market is always harder,” he said. “But when you think about it, the corporate market is almost unlimited. If the Postal Service and FedEx deploy this for all their carriers, the company will be busy for the next five years just keeping up with that demand.”

A patient entrepreneur would revel in that assessment. But Kamen is a man running short on patience. For him, conquering the corporate market is merely a prelude to the battle to come. “The consumer market is where the big money is,” says Michael Schmertzler, a Credit Suisse First Boston managing director and, with Doerr, Segway’s other major financial backer. “But this is about more than money for Dean. Pardon the cliche, but he really does want to change the world.”

With the Segway, Kamen plans to change the world by changing how cities are organized. To Kamen’s way of thinking, the problem is the automobile. “Cities need cars like fish need bicycles,” he says. Segways, he believes, are ideal for downtown transportation. Unlike cars, they are cheap, clean, efficient, maneuverable. Unlike bicycles, they are designed specifically to be pedestrian friendly. “A bike is too slow and light to mix with trucks in the street but too large and fast to mix with pedestrians on the sidewalk,” he argues. “Our machine is compatible with the sidewalk. If a Segway hits you, it’s like being hit by another pedestrian.” By traveling at three or four times walking speed, and thus turning what would have been a 30-minute walk into a 10-minute ride, Kamen contends, Segways will in effect shrink cities to the point where cars “will not only be undesirable, but unnecessary.”

Kamen isn’t so naive as to underestimate America’s long-standing romance with the automobile. (“I love cars too,” he says. “Just not when I’m downtown.”) And he is well aware that uprooting the vast urban infrastructure that supports cars, from parking garages to bridges and tunnels, won’t happen soon. Which is why he has pinned his greatest hopes not on the U.S. but abroad, especially in the developing world. At a meeting with Jobs a year ago, the Apple co-founder proclaimed, in typically hyperbolic fashion, “If enough people see this machine, you won’t have to convince them to architect cities around it; it’ll just happen.”

Kamen agrees. “Most people in the developing world can’t afford cars, and if they could, it would be a complete disaster,” he says. “If you were building one of the new cities of China, would you do it the way we have? Wouldn’t it make more sense to build a mass-transit system around the city and leave the central couple of square miles for pedestrians only?” Pedestrians and people riding Segways, that is.

“There’s no question in my mind that we have the right answer,” he continues. “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.” Kamen pauses and sighs. “If all we end up with are a few billion-dollar niche markets, that would be a disappointment. It’s not like our goal was just to put the golf-cart industry out of business.”

Remember Tucker?
One of the hardest truths for any technologist to hear is that success or failure in business is rarely determined by the quality of the technology. Betamax was better than VHS; the Mac operating system is superior to Windows. Even in the transportation business, there is the cautionary tale of Preston Tucker, who in the 1940s designed a “car of the future” packed with such safety innovations as a padded dashboard, disk brakes and safety glass–a car so far ahead of its time that only 51 were ever produced. In fact, the annals of high-tech history contain remarkably few cases in which the most innovative technology has emerged triumphant in the marketplace.

This is the sort of thing that keeps Kamen up at night. There are countless others. High on the list are congenitally skittish regulators who will decide if the Segway is safe and if it will be allowed to roll on sidewalks.

Kamen maintains, with characteristic chutzpah, that Segways are “even safer than walking.” Only slightly less emphatic, and slightly more plausible, was the verdict of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which began reviewing the device last May. According to Ron Medford, a senior CPSC official, the Segway has “safety features that are far more substantial than we normally see in a consumer product–features closer to those associated with medical devices.” (Medford, it must be said, was so impressed that he is taking a sabbatical at DEKA, though he remains on the government’s payroll.) To make the machine even safer, it comes equipped with three computerized keys that set speed and performance limits. The slowest setting, now called training mode, used to be jokingly referred to around DEKA as CEO mode.

The sidewalk issue is dicier. In order to ensure that Segways are permitted to move alongside pedestrians, Kamen’s regulatory-affairs mavens will have to keep the machine from being classified either as a motor vehicle or as a scooter. At the federal level, the deal is done–though, for a while, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration wanted to classify the Segway as a “powered industrial truck.” Technically, final sidewalk authority rests with state and local governments. Kamen is betting, however, that the decision will be made not by lawmakers but “de facto, by what becomes standard practice. If we have police and mail carriers riding on the sidewalks for a year, how is anyone in government going to say, ‘It’s O.K. for us but not O.K. for you’?”

No matter how inherently safe Segways may be, someone, somewhere is going to kill himself on one. “It’s inevitable,” says Gary Bridge, Segway’s marketing chief. “I dread that day.” Never mind that people die every day on bicycles, in crosswalks, on skateboards, in cars. The Segway is the newest new thing, and nothing does more to set hearts afire on the contingency-fee bar. “There are some very deep pockets around this thing,” remarks Andy Grove. “I fear this could be a litigation lightning rod.”

Not to mention a lightning rod for fierce competition. Although Kamen trashes the automobile at every opportunity and is plotting a future in which cars are barred from cities, he insists that the Big Three and their brethren will see the Segway as no threat. “Nobody in America or any developed nation will buy one of these instead of buying a car,” he says. “People will buy these in addition to owning a car.” But a former top auto executive thinks Kamen is kidding himself–or kidding me. “The car companies track market share by one one-hundredths of a percentage point,” he says. “They’re incredibly sensitive on that front, and this is going to dent somebody’s market share.”

Even if the auto barons leave the Segway alone, other players are unlikely to be so forgiving. When Kamen and his lieutenants draw up lists of probable rivals, companies in other branches of the transportation industry–firms that make ATVs, motorcycles, scooters, even snowmobiles–are near the top. But the lists have been long and varied, including a raft of appliance makers, engineering companies and, especially, consumer-electronics giants, such as Sony. Kamen’s team is confident it has a long technological lead, as well as patents on most of its key innovations. “Reverse engineering this thing won’t be easy,” says Schmertzler. “This is not a pet rock.” Yet if the Segway is a runaway hit, you can bet that a flood of knock-offs–much less sophisticated but also much cheaper–will soon wash over the market.

Will the Segway be a runaway hit? A device that reduces the need for walking, one of the healthiest activities known to man, may strike many people as the last thing our culture needs. (Kamen scoffs, “Because I give kids calculators doesn’t make them stupider.”) And three grand may strike many others as an awful lot to pay for something they’ve managed so far to live happily without. John Doerr, who helped bankroll Compaq in the infant days of the personal-computer industry, points out that the first PCs cost $3,000 to $5,000. The analogy is worth pondering. The brave souls who bought those early PCs were willing to cough up big bucks not simply to own computers that were small and powerful but also to be part of a kind of revolutionary vanguard. Will consumers today make the same calculation about the Segway?

If it’s seen as sufficiently cool, they might. But here Segway faces a double-edged sword. If not for the media frenzy a year ago, Kamen and his invention would be receiving a good deal less attention. At the same time, that frenzy ginned up expectations so absurdly extravagant that they will be hard to live up to. There is a very real possibility that for those whose only experience of the Segway is on TV or in the press, the reaction to it may boil down to five lethal words: Is that all it is? And that possibility is only enhanced by the fact that to many eyes giving the photos only a cursory glance, a Segway doesn’t look like a revolution. It looks…well, sorta like a scooter.

But looks can be misleading, as anyone who’s ridden a Segway can attest. Just ask Jeff Bezos. On a rainy morning in Seattle recently, Bezos dropped in at a meeting between Kamen, his team and a pair of Amazon execs. The meeting was being held in an Amazon “pick and pack” facility–a warehouse in which employees pick stock from shelves and pack it in boxes for shipment to customers. Kamen had come to sell Amazon some Segways by demonstrating that they would, as Bezos put it, “improve our picking productivity.”

Like Grove, Bezos is confident that Segway will make a mint selling to the corporate market; also like Grove, he is less certain about its consumer prospects. “At Amazon, we didn’t know at first, and nobody knew, whether people would want to buy books online, and the same is true for whether people will want to ride these,” he says. “Walking is a superb mechanism for getting around–I don’t see it being replaced anytime soon. And for long hauls, driving is darn good too. The question is whether there’s a middle ground, some intermediate zone where these would be better than all the alternatives?”

Just then, Kamen rides up and hands his Segway over to Bezos. As the Amazon boss races madly around the warehouse, hooting and cackling and flapping his arms, someone yells out, “Yo, Jeff, what were you saying about the consumer market?” Whizzing past, Bezos shouts back, “There’s definitely at least a consumer market of one!”

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