The Great Inventor

Renowned Inventor Promoting Personal Transportation Vehicles

Lots of people talk and dream about changing the world. Dean Kamen is actually doing it. His latest creation, a personal transportation vehicle called the Segway, may be the most revolutionary leap since the automobile. His next invention may prove to be even more important. Dan Rather reports.

Kamen loves to work: "I'm somebody who is absorbed by work," he says. "And some people, I think, misunderstand that, and think that's a problem, or I don't get a chance to have fun. To me, life is a blur of my activities, I mean it's only a job if you'd rather be doing something else."

Kamen lives in a magnificent home in the hills of New Hampshire, a home he shares with the machines he so worships.

Kamen believes in machines, and their ability to solve the world's problems. While still in his twenties, he designed and built some medical marvels, like the auto-syringe, which gives a patient an exact dose of medicine at exactly the right time, and a portable, self-serve kidney dialysis machine. He made millions from those devices.

From his company headquarters in Manchester, he then developed a new machine called the Ibot, which "allows a disabled person, a person who cannot walk to basically do all the ordinary things that you take for granted that they can't do even in a wheelchair, like go up a curb," says Kamen.

Using a complex array of gyroscopes, computers and a battery-powered motor, the Ibot can jump curbs and climb and descend stairs. When the gyroscopes are tied in with computers, the vehicle becomes self-balancing, the way a toddler learns to balance himself on his feet. It can stand up on its wheels, elevating the user to eye-level with the rest of the world.

It's expected to be available next year, at an estimated cost of $25,000 per unit. The self-balancing technology led Kamen to his next invention: the Segway human transporter

Segways have been ubiquitous in the last year. It has appeared on TV, and at motor races, where the Michelin company, which makes the tires, uses it in the pit areas. It is not yet available for sale to consumers, police in some major cities have been experimenting with it, as have postal workers.

"I don't want you to think that I'm naive enough to think we can start at the end position of putting Segways in all the big and polluted and congested cities of the world. We're a little, tiny business. We need to figure out how to sustain ourselves," says Kamen.

It is not so tiny a business. This streamlined assembly plant in Bedford, New Hampshire is poised to turn out as many as three thousand Segways a day. The Segway uses computer-linked gyroscopes and an electric motor to glide the rider across the ground. It can go about 12 miles an hour, depending on the computer setting. Lean forward and you go forward; Lean back and you go back.

"Today, 3.2 billion people live in cities," says Kamen. "More than half the human population lives in cities. If we could give them an attractive, productive alternative to using great big vehicles to get around at speeds of seven or eight miles an hour, which is the average speed of a taxicab in the 20 largest cities on the planet. It would by itself be a huge, huge solution to the congestion and pollution and energy demand problems the world is facing today.

But will those congested cities embrace the Segway, and allow its use on sidewalks? In Boston, where both the Police Department and postal workers have been experimenting with Segways, transportation commissioner Andrea d'Amato says that while she admires the technology she can't see the Segway coexisting with pedestrians here.

"Our streets are narrow, and our sidewalks are narrower. So, we would be a very difficult city in which to have these types of vehicles on our sidewalks," she says.

In Philadelphia, streets commissioner William Johnson, an engineer, is also wary of allowing Segways on sidewalks: "It makes a big difference if you've got one or two devices on a sidewalk or 10,000 on a sidewalk where you've got a lot of pedestrians, lots of opportunity for conflict. Our concern would be safety."

"I would never want to make the claim that this device cannot or in fact will not eventually be involved in accidents," says Kamen. "So the question becomes: When does good judgment say how safe is safe?"

Apparently, it's safe enough for Atlanta, where the city's so-called ambassadors have been using Segways to help direct tourists, and police have been patrolling Hartsdale Airport. City Planning Director Tom Wayandt sees the Segway as the means for Atlanta's mostly suburban population to get to mass transit stations without using their cars.

Says Wayandt: "We could triple the distance that people are willing to come, willing to travel, to get to transit. It makes the option of using transit much more real for this community. And gives us an alternative to the single passenger automobile for work trips, for pleasure trips, for trips to the ballgame. It won't eliminate cars, but it gives us an option we've never really considered before at all."

But in San Francisco, no one is rolling out the welcome wagon for Segway. Pedestrian rights advocate Michael Smith and his supporters fear the Segway will become the SUV of sidewalks.
"They're hazardous, they're dangerous. They've basically shoved them down our throats," says Smith. "Segway is a well-funded company. They have supposedly spent $100 million on development. They've also spent a great deal of money lobbying almost every state in the united states now to pass legislation allowing these devices."

Many people say they are concerned about liability over accidents involving Segways.

"I would say to you that the legal system in the United States is broken," says Kamen. "I think there is a lot of opportunity to improve the lives of a lot of people that have been substantially impeded by people not being willing to take appropriate chances in changing the wall we all live."

In Chicago, Director David Mosena, a former Transit Authority chief, tries to put opposition to the Segway into historical perspective.

A hundred years ago, he says, "There were all kinds of questions about, 'Well how do we integrate (cars) into the horse and buggy era?' And if you listened to those who were only driven by the horse and buggy thinking, you probably would have said, 'Forget about it.' But if you take a minute, and you think and you look at the positive aspects and you test it out, I'm not saying it's perfect. I don't know how it will work. But I would love to see it tried."

PART II: Kamen's Next Project
  • David Kohn

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