It's a scooter! It's a chariot! It's going to fall over!
It may be as close as we "muggles" get to Harry Potter's turbocharged broom.
After a year of hype and hoopla over "Ginger" and "IT," New Hampshire inventor Dean Kamen unveiled "Segway" yesterday, a motorized two-wheeled scooter with an ability to balance itself, leaving riders to focus on the road rather than staying upright.
Picture the back end of a child's tricycle, the steering shaft of a scooter, toss in some cutting-edge engineering, and you'll have a pretty good image of Mr. Kamen's latest contribution to human locomotion.
"It's the world's first self-balancing human transport," proclaims the wiry Kamen. "You stand on this, it goes. It's like putting on a pair of magic sneakers."
And who besides the perusers of Neiman Marcus catalogs might have an interest in Kamen's 12-m.p.h. chariots of tires?
"We've still got 13,000 letter carriers with walking routes," says US Postal Service spokeswoman Sue Brennan, who notes that the Postal Service is scheduled to take delivery of 20 scooters in early January. Carriers will be test-driving the units in Tampa and Fort Myers, Fla., Concord, N.H., and at Postal Service headquarters.
Kamen, whose credits for innovation include the portable dialysis machine and a self-balancing wheelchair that climbs stairs, says other commercial partners will also be testing grounds for his scooters. Among them are the city of Atlanta, the National Park Service, several police departments, and online bookseller Amazon.com.
"I think Segway potentially has a very large impact," says Woodie Flowers, a professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a close friend of Kamen's. "People in congested areas can have a new kind of mobility. People that have trouble walking can get around much more comfortably." And instead of locking up a vehicle in a parking lot, "you can just have the thing come with you."
The team, always mysterious, is holding details of the scooter's construction and technologies close to the vest because of patent considerations, Dr. Flowers notes.
"The key issue is self-balancing," achieved by tiny gyros tied to other systems, he allows. "There's a lot of very elegant engineering in that machine: everything from the tires, motors, and gearing to the sensor system."