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Sunday, Nov. 15, 2009
Will Segway sci-fi ever be everyday fact?
Officialdom in Japan stalls a two-wheeled green revolution in personal transport that's just waiting to happen
By EDAN CORKILL
When the Segway first appeared, in 2001, it seemed like science fiction had sprung to life. Quiet, compact, efficient, and utterly mesmerizing with its ability to self-balance on two wheels, the U.S.-made "personal mobility device" promised to revolutionize transportation as we knew it.
And yet, eight years down the track, and on the other side of the Pacific, in Japan, you could be forgiven for thinking that Segways really were a fiction after all. Chances to see, let alone ride, the machines are extremely rare.
But that doesn't mean people have lost interest. As I learned recently, riding a Segway is a fast track to celebrity. Put simply, the machines have the power to captivate onlookers. Which makes the question of why they haven't caught on all the more intriguing.
So I set out in search of Segways. I wanted to know where they are in Japan, and what they are being used for.
To a large extent, the answers were to be found in the Yokohama portside office of Segway Japan, the official national distributor.
"There are about 1,000 Segways in Japan," reported Dai Akimoto, the company's director of marketing. That figure includes all those sold by his company since it opened in April, all those sold by its predecessor, SGI Japan, which had been the official distributor since 2006, as well as all those sold by so-called parallel importers, who bring the machines from overseas themselves.
Segway Japan currently sells about 300 units annually, with most being used in the security and tourism industries.
But, before getting into the nitty-gritty of real-world Segway applications, let's jump to the fun part and go for a spin!
The Segway's ease of operation becomes apparent the moment you step aboard. Surprisingly stable, its internal computer makes small adjustments every 100th of a second to keep it upright. It's like when you stand a ruler on your hand and move it back and forth to keep the ruler upright. With a Segway, you are the ruler and the Segway moves its wheels — at up to 100 times per second — to keep you upright.
When you deliberately lean forward, it moves forward — at up to 20 kph — and likewise it goes the other way when you lean backward. Steering is done via bicyclelike handlebars that you tilt left or right. Within seconds I was running laps around the meeting-room table at Segway Japan.
But it was time to continue the interview, so I grudgingly dismounted and had Akimoto explain why such wondrous machines are all but restricted to security companies and tour operators.
The reason, he said, is that Japan's roads and traffic laws prevent their use on public roads and footpaths. Consequently, Segway Japan has directed its energies toward corporate clients who can use the machines exclusively on private property — shopping centers, parks, factories and, to a lesser extent, golf courses.
"If we sold them to individuals, they'd go and ride on them in public," Akimoto lamented. Such stunts tend to result in bad publicity and ultimately undermine Segway Japan's attempts to lobby for changes to the traffic laws, he explained.
In a further effort to minimize irresponsible Segway-ing, Akimoto's company has implemented contractual rules that govern how products they sell can be used. Riders must undergo a 30-minute training program, for example, and operators must take out specially prepared insurance policies.
The primary objective, Akimoto explained, is to demonstrate to lawmakers and the public that Segways can be used safely and efficiently. "Even when Segways are used in crowded areas, with children running around, accidents don't happen," he said.
Segways are currently being used for security purposes at the Pacifico Yokohama convention center, and security giant Zennikkei has started offering Segway-mounted guard services.
"When a security guard is on a Segway, their heads are above the crowd," Pacifico General Affairs Officer Koichi Ikegame reported. "That means they can see further, and they are also more visible, so it is easier for people to request assistance."
Zennikkei began advertising their new services in September. Salesman Hideyuki Iizuka explained that while no customers had signed up for the service so far, several have expressed interest.
Iizuka further explained that the prominence of the Segway affects the attitudes of the guards. "They suddenly become the focus of attention, so they have to be more prepared to interact with the public, more friendly," he said.
But not everyone is sold on the security merits of Segways. Tokyo Big Sight, in Odaiba, for example, didn't adopt Segways full-time after running a two-month trial that concluded in late 2007. A spokesperson emphasized that they had undertaken the trial because SGI Japan had provided the machines, which retail from a hefty ¥935,000 each, free of charge.
Meanwhile, Segway tours are currently being offered at the well-known, Dutch-themed Huis Ten Bosch amusement park in Nagasaki Prefecture, at Tokachi Millennium Forest in Hokkaido and at Musashi Kyuryo National Park, better known as Shinrin Koen, in Saitama Prefecture.
Huis Ten Bosch owns 10 of the machines, and press officer Kotaro Takada explained that Segway tours are an efficient way to show visitors the 152-hectare site. "A lot of people come specifically for the Segway tours," he explained.
The ability of Segways to attract customers was echoed by Kiyofumi Shinmei, of the not-for-profit organization Information Center, which organizes Segway tours at Shinrin Koen.
"For many customers, it's the Segway they are coming for," he explained. He added that as Segway riders are not exhausting themselves through walking, they have more time and energy to examine the park's flora and fauna and also to talk with their fellow tourists.
Having effortlessly participated in the Shinrin Koen tour, I can confirm those observations. The ability to talk while riding is particularly important for the simple reason that when you're riding a Segway, suddenly a lot of people want to talk to you. For three hours we zoomed around the park, and everywhere we were being asked: "What's that?"; "Hey, they're Segways, aren't they?"; "How does that work?"; "Is it easy to ride?"
One young boy announced proudly to his friends that we were riding "mirai no jitensha" — bicycles of the future.
So, although Japan residents keen to savor a Segway do have several options, the machines clearly have a long way to go before they replace the humble bicycle.
Akimoto explained that after building up the public's faith in Segways through tours and security work, his company hopes to work with local governments to establish special trial zones where Segways can be rented and used in public. Municipalities such as Kashiwa City in Chiba Prefecture, Tsukuba City in Ibaraki Prefecture and Yokohama City, which are attracted to the electric machines' energy efficiency (40 km on a single eight-hour charge), have expressed interest, Akimoto said.
Segway Japan hopes that by around 2013, when they expect Toyota's Segway-copycat device, the Winglet, to hit the market, they will be able to convince the National Police Agency to experiment with their machines. Only after that, they guess, will legal reforms allowing the public to use Segways on footpaths become a real possibility.
While many jurisdictions in the United States and Europe already permit the use of Segways on footpaths or in bike lanes, in Japan their futuristic nature appears to have worked against them. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, for example, has lumped them in with robots — a category including machines that assist lifting, movement, transportation, cleaning and rehabilitation. Only recently, in fact, have they started to think seriously about policy initiatives to deal with the emergence of so-called "riding-type robots," such as Segways and Winglets.
One recommendation made in a March report issued by a METI robotics-industry policy committee was that all riding-type robots should be fitted with a "flight recorder" similar to an airplane's "black box." The report argued that the likelihood of accidents would be reduced if riders knew their every move was recorded.
If so, Japan might be faced with the irony of Segway-related government policy being as reminiscent of science fiction as the machine itself. Perhaps we will end up with a Big Brother-like information- gathering network to monitor a Star Wars-like device.