Heels on Wheels

Vehicle’s Pace May Be Brisker Than Sales, but Retailer Says Innovations Take Time
George Condon Jr.

George Condon Jr., son of one of the co-owners of Segway Central Massachusetts, demonstrates the self-balancing, easy-to-use vehicle.

“Come back in the spring, and we’ll ride them outside for an hour,” Jerry Condon said at the end of his interview with BusinessWest. “Make sure you bring a jacket.”

Condon, co-owner of Segway Central Massachusetts in West Springfield, had been demonstrating the so-called ‘human transporter’ inside the company’s lobby, due to wintry conditions outside. In that confined space, he could only get the Segway up to 3 or 4 mph. Outside, it hits a top speed of 12.5 mph.

Hence the jacket — first-time riders are always surprised how fast 12.5 mph actually feels, he said, and how chilly the ride can become if there’s any touch of coolness in the air.

That brisk ride, as anyone who has stepped onto a Segway knows, is also safe; the revolutionary, self-balancing device unveiled by inventor Dean Kamen in 1999 uses gyroscopes to intrinsically know where the rider is in space at all times. With an ever-so-slight lean of the body in any direction, or just a little pressure on the toes or heels, the Segway moves that way. Lean too far forward or back, and the device automatically moves beneath the rider and keeps him upright. When used correctly, it’s almost impossible to fall off.

“Typically, it takes less than two minutes to be comfortable with the machine, and two hours to be very good on it,” said Condon. “It’s all about trusting the machine.”

It’s also a money-saver when it comes to energy costs. In a country where an estimated 50% of all car starts are for trips under three miles, he said, the Segway makes sense — particularly when gas prices have been soaring for some time. “For people who want to be earth-friendly, this will recharge on about 15 cents worth of electricity, and will go 24 miles on that 15-cent charge,” he said.

It comes down to what’s most efficient, Condon explained. If you’re going from Boston to California, he said, obviously you’ll want to fly, and a car works best between Springfield and Boston. “But if you’re going a few blocks for lunch, the Segway is the fastest way to get there. I can literally race guys in their cars to lunch and win every time.”

Quick Thinking

Kamen has produced an impressive series of medical innovations over the years, including IV pumps for premature babies, portable insulin pumps, home kidney dialysis, and a wheelchair that climbs stairs through use of a ‘dynamic stabilization’ system that was a direct predecessor of the Segway.

Unlike many of Kamen’s other creations, the Segway — which uses five ‘gyroscopes’ that communicate with each other 100 times per second to adjust balance — makes no medical claims, and in fact Kamen sold all medical rights surrounding dynamic balance to Johnson & Johnson, which now manufactures the wheelchair. That hasn’t stopped elderly people and others with mobility issues from using Segways effectively to get around.

Still, Segways start at $5,200 for the basic model and $5,700 for an all-terrain version with larger tires, so they do require an investment — one that far fewer Americans have made than the national company would like. So why sell such a niche item?

“We just love the Segway,” said Condon, who partnered with his brother, George, on the venture. They sell about one transporter per week, and sales have steadily increased during their two years in business. But they had to wait awhile before they could convert their passion for the vehicle into a company.

“When they first came out, they were sold only through Amazon.com, and after that only through Brookstone stores,” he said. “Then they decided to go to dealerships, but we kind of missed the boat at first; someone in Agawam got a dealership first” — and Segway doesn’t allow multiple dealers in one area. But that seller gave up his business after 18 months, and the brothers jumped at the opportunity to take over the territory, which includes Springfield, Northampton, and Amherst, among other communities.

“No one can open another retail outlet in that area, but we can sell them anywhere in the continental U.S.,” he said.

About 40% of Segways are sold to police departments, which use them for community policing and neighborhood patrols, Condon said. “They find it makes for very friendly interaction; when you’re riding along, people are willing to go up and talk to you, whereas on a bicycle, you’re moving too fast to be on a sidewalk, so the officer doesn’t get as good a chance to talk to people.”

Another advantage, Condon said, is the Segway’s height, which adds eight inches to an officer’s own standing, allowing him or her to see over parked cars and crowds. It also keeps the officer from becoming tired during what would otherwise be a foot or bicycle chase.

“I think it’s been a great tool,” said Holyoke Police Chief Anthony Scott, whose department owns four Segways. “In fact, the mayor, the public works superintendent, and I use them to check several areas of the city. I have several officers trained, and we use them to patrol the shopping center areas on Northampton Street, the downtown area on High Street, and the strip malls. During the summer months, we’re going to be using them at Ingleside in the parking lots and inside the mall.”

He said the height advantage — enabling the officer to see over crowds, and people to clearly see the officer — isn’t the only advantage a Segway offers.

“It has better maneuverability than a bicycle, and you can carry a lot more equipment on it,” Scott said. “Plus, people can’t steal the Segway like they can just jump on a bike and ride away.”

Actually, he clarified, the Segway can be stolen; it’s just useless to the thief. The Segway can be turned on with only one magnetic key, and even if someone tried to bring a stolen Segway to a dealer to have the key replaced, the real owner’s name would pop up on the computer.

“I realized the year before last that this is a great tool,” Scott said.

Slow Going

The fact remains, however, that the Segway has not been the world-changing technology that Kamen and its investors — who poured $100 million into the device’s development and unleashed a torrent of hype before its unveiling — hoped it would be. Segway, which initially boasted that it could produce 40,000 vehicles per month, has always been reluctant to share actual sales figures, but two recent recalls shed some light on how pervasive the machine actually is — or isn’t.

According to Time magazine, Segway recalled 6,000 vehicles in 2003, a year after it began selling the device, to fix a problem associated with depleted batteries. Then, about 18 months ago, another recall — this time to repair a software issue — revealed that the company had sold only 23,500 Segways to date. Compare the two figures, three years apart, and they reveal steady growth, but also nothing close to serious market penetration.

“It didn’t catch on like wildfire, but it wasn’t supposed to,” Condon said, noting that Kamen originally anticipated that the vehicle would replace one-third of all cars within 15 to 20 years. “This is an innovation, and innovations take time to catch on.”

At the same time, some analysts point out, many communities have become more pedestrian- and bike-friendly over the past decade, and many people would rather walk or pedal their way to nearby destinations than pay more than $5,000 to use a Segway and then have to worry about where to park it.

“From a technological standpoint Segway was a revolutionary invention: a computer-controlled, self-balancing human transporter that was highly maneuverable yet easy and safe to use,” wrote Jeff Foust, an author and blogger who deals with space and technology. “However, to the public, whose expectations had bloomed in a hothouse of hype fueled by the media and the Internet, the Segway seemed more like an odd-looking scooter than the device that was as revolutionary as the Internet and would force people to rearchitect cities.”

To Foust, the reason is simple: most people have never felt like they need a Segway, which is why its broadest use so far has been among police departments, golfers, and tourism companies, which offer Segway tours in many vacation-destination cities. “In essence, the Segway team had crafted a wonderful technical solution,” Foust said, “but had failed in clearly enunciating the problem it could solve.”

That doesn’t faze Condon, though, who has sold the transporter to a range of customers, from police to young people who simply enjoy riding them, to people with joint replacements who appreciate the enhanced mobility.

“I’ve met people who have multiple sclerosis who use it to get around for personal transportation,” he said. “We’re seeing people between age 55 and 75 who don’t want to slow down, and people who have had their knees replaced and are now able to walk with the kids or the dog every day.

“Well, they’re not actually walking,” he corrected. But they are getting around — and getting around high gas prices at the same time. And, hopefully, wearing a jacket.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]