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THE SEGWAY Interest runs high for scooter debut



Published: Sun, February 9, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



The $5,000 personal scooter goes on sale March 1.

SCRIPPS HOWARD

When a retired business executive turns 65, he might reasonably expect the family to give him a set of golf clubs, or a couple of berths on a cruise ship, or a hammock for the back yard.

Norman Sanders of Jacksonville, Fla., isn't a hammock sort of guy. What he got from his family for his 65th birthday was a matched set of one of the most coveted vehicles to debut in the United States since the original Ford Mustang.

The Segway Human Transporter, a motorized scooter more commonly known by its old code name, "It," was unveiled a year ago amid great hype. It was touted by inventor Dean Kamen and fans as a device that would revolutionize Americans' concept of personal transportation.

A year later, nobody knows whether it will ever conquer the sidewalks. But lots of people are anticipating March 1, when shipping of Segways to private owners begins.

Demand is high

Though the sticker price of $4,950 feels heavy in a depressed economy, a spokesman for the Internet site Amazon.com, the only venue where one can place an order, says demand is high.

Still, it is unlikely that sales will outpace those for the ubiquitous Razor electric scooter, which fetches $90 at Sharper Image, even after Segway introduces a smaller model this year with a price tag between $2,000 and $3,000.

Sanders, whose daughter-in-law won the right to buy two scooters before the release date based on a 75-word essay explaining why Sanders deserved to have them, insists the price difference is worth it.

"When people get on, for maybe the first 25 seconds they're tentative," Sanders said. "But after that, they're wearing smiles from ear to ear. Whether it's seniors or kids or people in between, everybody loves them. They're completely safe, safer than bicycles, because they don't fall over."

The Segway's secret is a complex balancing system. If you lean back, the scooter moves backward. If you lean forward, it moves forward. If you climb a hill, the platform remains level. It won't go up stairs, but it will negotiate curbs.

Testing

A year ago, the scooter underwent a four-week test by the U.S. Postal Service in Tampa as an alternative to having carriers walk with 35-pound bags. It then had similar tests in six other cities with a variety of climates.

Testing is now on hiatus, although the Postal Service was sufficiently impressed with early results that it bought 40 Segways to continue testing. Because of the extra weight they carry, the Postal Service models are heavy-duty in performance standards and price, about $8,000 each.

The scooters are gradually making their way into corporate life. Several are aboard each of Disney's cruise ships for the captains' use and as demos for passengers.

Matt Dailida, who handles regulatory issues for Segway, says that Walt Disney World has Segway scooters on its grounds for employees who need to negotiate the vast complex.

They are "the only wheeled devices allowed in the park during hours of operation," he said.

They will become a part of the culture of Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta; they will be used by employees to negotiate the facility's sprawl. The city of Seattle is testing them as a vehicle for meter readers.

And the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass., bought three scooters for its police department and admissions office.

It's not surprising that the scooter would be warmly received at the school. It's where Kamen did the undergraduate work that led to his career as an inventor. Among his 90 patents are a vascular stent, a portable dialysis machine and the iBOT, a four-wheel-drive wheelchair that climbs stairs.

And, yes, Kamen arranged for his old school to get its Segway fleet at a discount.

Banned in cities

The scooter has not received such a warm welcome elsewhere. Though 33 states, including Florida, and the District of Columbia passed legislation that would allow the scooters to operate on sidewalks, the laws left room for cities to take their own action, and they have.

San Francisco has banned Segways from sidewalks, though they are allowed on streets, and several other California cities are studying similar bans.

The San Francisco action was based on the dangers that the scooter, with a 12.5 mph top speed, might pose to pedestrians, particularly the elderly.




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