Look! Down on the sidewalk, it's a bird, it's a plane, no it's the Segway Human Transporter?
After many months of feverish Internet speculation in techie chat rooms, this mysterious device — codenamed "Ginger" and hailed as a technological leap that would change the future of transportation and the form of our cities — was officially unveiled to the world. Dean Kamen, the device's inventor referred to it as a "pair of magic sneakers."
No, Ginger is not a personal hovercraft, an antigravity device powered by alien technology, or even a metallic version of Harry Potter's Nimbus 2000 superbroom, as some futurists had hoped. Still, Ginger is quite a technological marvel. The 65-pound device has two-wheels, no brakes, no gears, no steering wheel, and is designed to hold one standing rider. It's powered by a battery with a six-hour charge from a regular wall socket.
But Ginger's most innovative aspect is its combination of gyroscopes and computer technology that control its motion by sensing subtle shifts in the rider's weight. Some who have tested it compared its movement to the feeling of skiing.
The advance spin (pardon the pun) on Ginger was that it was a transportation device with the potential to revolutionize city form and urban planning in the United States. According to Kamen, Ginger "will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy." In fact, the Segway website states that, "As more people use [Ginger], there will be a global effect—a focus away from urban sprawl, reduced fuel consumption, and less stress on the environment."
These are lofty and admirable goals, but are they realistic? Not likely in the foreseeable future, because like other highly touted alternatives to the automobile (light rail, buses, bikes , etc.), Ginger lacks much of the autonomy, flexibility, security, and basic amenities that cars provide.
Ginger only travels at a maximum of 12 miles an hour and has a range of about 15 miles, precluding anything but slow, short-distance travel. Like its technological inferior, the razor scooter, Ginger is designed for a very light load — one person with whatever they can fit in their pockets or strap on their back. Sorry soccer moms, there's no space for grocery bags, child seats, the family dog, and the neighbors' kids.
It also offers no protection from the elements, which may be fine for Southern California residents (unless they're worried about UV exposure), but will make it much less appealing for people in the snowy Midwest, rainy Northwest, or the humid Gulf Coast. Finally, the initial cost estimate for a consumer version is around $3,000, potentially placing the device out of reach for many people and relegating it to novelty item status.
In short, Ginger doesn't yet offer the kind of amenities that would allow it to pose a serious challenge to the automobile. Hence, city planners probably do not need to rush back to the drawing board to reinvent our transportation systems and urban forms.
Adding to the uncertainty regarding Ginger's usefulness is the issue of how regulators and bureaucrats will respond to it. In many areas, motorized transport is not allowed to share space on public sidewalks with pedestrians. And even if Gingers were allowed unfettered access to sidewalks, would a massive switch to the device refocus congestion from streets to the sidewalks? Would "sidewalk rage" then supplant "road rage" as the bane of our modern existence?
Other provocative questions quickly come to mind. Will Ginger users be required to carry insurance? Will regulators require manufacturers to incorporate turn signals, horns, and mirrors, or force users to obtain special operating licenses? Though it is extremely difficult to tip the device over (even at top speed or in a direct collision), will riders be required to wear helmets or strap into "Ginger belts?" Will riders be prohibited from using cell phones? Though these questions are offered somewhat tongue-in-cheek, we should not underestimate the power of bureaucrats and regulators to micromanage.
Since it will probably not live up to its initial hype in our lifetime, will Ginger be a flop?
We certainly won't see Northern Virginia suburbanites donning their "magic sneakers" and hitting the Beltway anytime soon, and many will simply deride Ginger as a fancy scooter (at least until their neighbor gets one). But what Ginger does offer is a relatively inexpensive alternative for urban dwellers interested in shedding their cars, downtown traffic, and expensive parking fees. And while it won't replace the car, Ginger provides another transportation option for people to choose from, regardless of where they live.
More importantly, Ginger is a testament to the spirit of innovation, and one that has raised the interest of automakers. Though Kamen claims that Ginger will be a supplement to, and not a replacement for, the automobile, one former auto executive stated in a recent Time magazine article that, "The car companies track market share by one one-hundredths of a percentage point. They're incredibly sensitive on that front, and [Ginger] is going to dent somebody's market share."
In fact, there is a very real possibility that Ginger's launch could help to stimulate technological advances in the auto industry to meet the rising demand for cheap, clean transportation. Nothing spurs creativity and progress like some good old American-style market competition.
We have now seen the future, and its name is the Segway Human Transporter—or is it? Despite an abundance of wishful thinking, it will likely have little, if any, effect on the form of our cities because of its inherent utilitarian limitations. But it nonetheless offers another transportation option for city dwellers to choose from, expanding their mobility choices beyond cars, public transportation, biking, and walking. Perhaps in a larger sense though, Ginger could just be a stepping stone to a more radical technological transportation innovation that will change our lives in unpredictable and exciting ways.
Leonard Gilroy is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation