Three years after the Segway Human Transporter was supposed to change the world, Dean Kamen’s innovation factory unveils a four-wheeled successor that just wants to have fun.
What I’m staring at on the lawn is the outcome of this process of innovation: a Segway with four wheels. Seems like a pretty natural product-line extension. Field is the first to acknowledge that the Centaur has a tremendous amount of HT DNA—the entire base, stuffed with tilt sensors and gyroscopes that allow it to balance, is an HT. But, he adds, it was hardly as simple as adding two more wheels. The steering, for example, is part mechanical, part drive-by-wire. Two sensors in the steering column calculate speed (from the throttle) and angle of turn (from the handlebar) and send the data to computers in the base. Integrating that information with readings from the tilt sensors and gyros, control boards adjust the speed of the independent rear wheel motors 100 times a second to keep the machine upright.
The idea of a machine that rides on four wheels or reconfigures itself to float on two had, unsurprisingly, been bouncing around the lab since the HT. By building on the HT platform, the team recognized, they could create an extremely maneuverable, speedier ATV-like vehicle that could pick up its wheels to climb over obstacles. Eventually the engineering brain trust strapped a plywood model to an HT power base and rigged it with a broom that could be pushed down, like a lever, to lift the front wheels off the floor. A video reminiscent of the Little Rascals is evidence of initial success; in its maiden voyage, the tilt sensors and gyroscopes in the base do their job, and the first prototype pops a well-balanced wheelie.
After months and months of riding around on what Field describes as “really shaky, scary concepts,” the team was able to churn out a final prototype in just four weeks. The Centaur won’t necessarily become a consumer product, but it’s no longer a nebulous concept either. Kamen has taken it for a spin and has anointed it viable. If Segway’s market analysts agree, the Centaur could drop its code name and be a real product by late next year. “We’ve proved that we can make it work and that we can make it very attractive. Now it’s a business decision,” Field says. “There are no great plans for production at this point, but if they want to build it, we could move extremely quickly.”
For Segway, the stakes are high, and the bet is characteristically quixotic. The HT hasn’t (yet?) caught fire, so why introduce another product whose appeal is sealed only through experience and whose natural market would seem to be nichier even than that of the niche HT—ideal for a theoretical subset of ATV enthusiasts and industrial workers looking for a clean, quiet, extremely maneuverable machine? “Real breakthroughs never occur from market pull or business briefings,” Field says, preaching the Segway gospel. “Real breakthroughs almost always come from technical exploration and people trying to solve problems before they even know why they might want to solve them. Our goal is to give the business as many ideas as possible. We kiss a lot of frogs, but this one happens to be a prince, and that’s why it’s out seeing the light of day.”