Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Honk! Can Segway do the trick?

We wish engineers, inventors and anyone else who chooses to get involved, all the good luck in the world when it comes to trying to bring on line new and more emissions/energy effective vehicles and power sources.

Indeed, we are convinced that the shift from old to new mobility will in large part be mediated by technology. However we have to be a bit careful with this because at the same time it is important to bear in mind the time window which we believe is the proper focus of policy and practice, and of course of technology – i.e., the two to four years directly ahead.

This is significant and in many discussions of various ways of achieving more sustainable transportation arrangements, we often hear much about the advantages of new vehicle, motive, and fuel technologies, as if they were going to be able to do the job that needs to be done. This of course is impossible, unfortunately, when we bear in mind the realities of the penetration path of these technologies, which are measured in many years and indeed decades by a time they begin to have a significant global impact on greenhouse gas reductions, energy savings, etc..

It is tempting of course for us to look at proposals for this particular class of technologies, all the more so since they often are well supported by institutions and interests behind them. You do not have to look very far to find many such proposals, often wrapped up in very appealing packages and arguments. But we really need to think hard and keep them in perspective.

Here is one example that has been brought to our attention today by our "eyes on the street" colleague in Ottawa, Chris Bradshaw, in which he makes the point: ”It seems Segway's announcement today,, is right up your alley.”

Well, if we check out that reference here is what the Segway people have to say about their product:

“Think of it as a digital solution to an analog problem. Segway’s P.U.M.A. (Personal Urban Mobility & Accessibility) prototype represents the shift that’s needed for the future of transportation. It values less over more; taking up less space, using less energy, produced more efficiently with fewer parts, creating fewer emissions during production and operation, all while offering more enjoyment, productivity, and connectivity”

Hmm. I invite you to have a look at the Segway product and proposal as outlined here, and to share with us your reflections and reactions to it, perhaps both in general but more specifically within the time and strategic framework that World Streets is working with. Personally I do not see it.

True enough, if Segway and other innovators with similar softer technology packages are able to bring to market vehicles which people will buy and use instead of less efficient and more wasteful technologies, this would be useful at that specific micro level. But from the global and time perspective that we are destined to work with, it just doesn't add up. Sorry.

To end a more positive note, I would with your permission like to cite the statement made under the heading “Full speed ahead with new technology” in the welcoming note posted here.

“New mobility is at its core heavily driven by the aggressive application of state of the art logistics, communications and information technology across the full spectrum of service types. The transport system of the future is above all an interactive information system, with the wheels and the feet at the end of this chain. These are the seven leagues boots of new mobility.”

Thus it is our view that technology is no less than enormously important in the party moved to sustainability, but the way in which is going to make its difference will be when it is brought in to provide the information and communications infrastructure needed to render our new mobility systems effective and competitive. We will never get there without them

Your comments are as always very welcome on this.

Eric Britton

Editor, World Streets

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  1. You will find further discussions and comments on this splendid idea over on our friend Streetsblog at I had not realized that the full creative powers of GM had also been harnessed for this earnest attempt at saving our cities. But now you will see. Thanks Streetsblog.

  2. One among I assume many articles about the PUMA is in the Huffington Post Green section, with lots of comments.

    My favourite excerpt: "Ideally, the vehicles would also be part of a communications network that through the use of transponder and GPS technology would allow them to drive themselves. The vehicles would automatically avoid obstacles such as pedestrians and other cars and therefore never crash, says [Larry] Burns [GM's vice president of research and development, and strategic planning]."

    "Never crash"? I can only imagine a future urban game, in which someone jumps in front of a PUMA, which makes it instantly stop in its tracks/bounce into the air/de-materialise.... and so on. The laws of physics will have something to say about what happens to driver of the PUMA if the vehicle could actually stop on a dime.

    It is clear that we need to ask about everything else its developers are promising.

  3. On Behalf Of Chris Bradshaw
    Sent: Wednesday, April 08, 2009 4:14 PM

    From: Eric Britton (Paris, France)

    > [from Segway's site,] "Segway's P.U.M.A. (Personal Urban Mobility & Accessibility) prototype represents the shift that's needed for the future of transportation. It values less over more; taking up less space, using less energy, produced more efficiently with fewer parts, creating fewer emissions during production and operation, all while offering more enjoyment, productivity, and connectivity"

    It is all this, if compared to cars, but not if compared with their PT, one-person model, that was originally targets at the walking-impaired, and called the EPAMD, or Electric Personal Assistive Mobility Device, and is now marketed to employers of large worksites to reduce walking times (cf. movie, Paul Blart, Mall Cop). That device was aimed at sidewalks, and, before launch, Segway got many states on board to exempt them from bans of motorized devices on sidewalks, even though they were partly marketed as reducing the demand for and use of automobiles. This meant they were to
    take the _place_ of car, but not the _space_ of cars.

    If we look at the P.U.M.A., we see it at least being designed for streets, except for two things:
    1) Crash Protection. With the motor and "fuel" stored under the seats, and lacking a trunk, there is no "crumple zone" in the case of a collision. I suspect the lack of cargo capability has to do with the balancing mechanism that requires a set fore-aft weight distribution (but which doesn't limit the utilization of the passenger seat, since it is centered over the wheels.
    Which means the user has to decide: passenger or cargo)?

    2) Parking. Even though their site mentions that this will be the first vehicle that will have a zero turning radius, it will not be able to access the shortest parking spots that a motorcycle can use. That is because the
    wheels are side-by-side, so, to get into a spot, the spot has to be at least as _long_ as the PUMA is _wide_. Unless it has extra casters that can drop down for parking (as the early Dahon folding Classic had for its parking), it won't be a candidate for a kind of Vélib sharing system (the parking for which should be on-street, not on sidewalks, anyway).

    The first limitation is actually an asset for the New Mobility Agenda, since it will require a shift in injury-damage-avoidance responsibility back to the "endangerer," away from the "endangeree," as recently discussed here.

    How can we make streets more friendly for these smaller vehicles? Banning pedestrian unfriendly vehicles, heavier vehicles, and faster speeds, probably. If we don't, the vehicles used in cities will continue to be
    "defensive" and heavy and bulky. Another advantage to this shift in safety
    responsibilities, is the fact that younger and less capable individuals should rightly quality to "drive" them, reducing the taxi function within households and extended families.

    The sharing possibilities would overcome the problem created by people acquiring one of these _in addition to_ a highway-capable car, since the PUMA is not appropriate for the whole range of driving situations a person needs. I foresee a vehicle of this type, available ubiquitously in urban areas, making the standard car-of-today unnecessary in the city at all, and therefore stored on the outskirts, and further inappropriate for personal
    ownership, but rather rental.

    With a proper sharing regime, the parking footprint of the vehicle can go down, since it will spend less time parked than being used, and the amount of parking for them can be kept as low as possible.

    [Eric:] > if Segway and other innovators with similar softer technology packages are able to bring to market vehicles which people will buy and use instead of less efficient and more wasteful technologies, this would be
    useful at that specific micro level.

    The Segways are a technology in search of a use. Sometimes, find that use, the social side of technology, takes more time. But remember, sharing is also a technology, and the on-board IT Segway suggests on their site, including collision-avoidance, can be used to master the on-the-fly hand-offs between successive users, and even line-up passengers for that empty seat. And it can use "proximity alarms" to find locations of things on one's to-do list. It already can handle the booking and invoicing
    responsibility, something that Eric points out.

    But another challenge for battery motors is how to overcome the slow recharge times for vehicles with contant demand to be on-the-go.

    Chris Bradshaw
    Ottawa, Canada

  4. I think this. like the original stand-up single Segway *would* be a fantastic invention if people used them mostly *instead* of other motor vehicles. However it seems that more often people use them in *addition* to other motor vehicles, thus making the general traffic problem worse, not better.

    Theo Schmidt
    Berlin Germany

  5. When the launch of Segway was prepared, its inventor, Mr. Kamen, said that "this new, revolutionary vehicle will bring the change to the personal transport in cities and will replace car (...) Emmission free, small and compact" (...)
    I asked myself a question: is this guy talking about a bicycle?...
    Well, contrary to the bicycle, this version of Segway will allow the motorists to maintain their full-potato effect and keep them away from any exercise.
    From the other hand, I am getting bored of hearing about "dangerous cyclists", which is mainly a talk about a feelings, not the facts -- about a danger perceived, not real. And what about those ambulant toilets rolling on the crowded sidewalks in the city centres? To be bumped by one of them will be not nice, and the wheels on the sides of the vehicle make riding over someones toes much more probable, than by bike...


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