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Pique n' Your Interest

Segway: The misunderstood little machine that could

Segways on the Valley Trail? Bring ’em on! Heck, while we’re at it, let those spunky little machines loose on Highway 99. And the village? Of course, the village!

As a former children’s TV executive, I find the Segway story a source of inspiration. It’s got it all: false hopes, misunderstanding and perhaps an even greater purpose that even its inventors couldn’t have anticipated.

Earlier this month an Ontario man received $8,000 worth of fines for driving a Segway on the road in Niagra Falls. I believe therein lies the Segway’s true value. But first, some background.

The brainchild of American inventor Dean Kamen, the self-balancing, two-wheeled scooter was released amid much fanfare in 2001. For months leading up to its launch the world was abuzz with speculations. What was the elusive product hiding under codename "Ginger"? Was it a hover scooter? Personalized jetpack? A flying car? The sigh in the geek world sounded like an elementary school’s worth of kids Christmas expectations being simultaneously deflated when it was announced that Kamen’s invention was the gravity-encumbered Segway.

For the past couple of years the RMOW has been toying with the idea of allowing limited usage of the human transporters. A pilot project. A presentation to council there. But still, the weird little machines that resemble hand-pushed pavement rollers remain absent from our paths, streets and sidewalks.

New Orleans, Washington and Paris are just a few of the cities around the world currently offering Segway tours. At $65 US or 45 euros a crack, these excursions have proven to be a hit with novelty seeking tourists.

Maybe part of council’s reluctance to allow the Segway to participate in resort life has to do with the quirky little scooter’s reputation. It should be cool, but sadly it’s not. This summer Maclean’s magazine deemed the Segway a technological turkey based on the marketplace’s reluctance to embrace the clumsy looking contraption. And if Maclean’s thinks you’re unhip well… chances are… you’ve been unhip for some time.

To date, fewer than 10,000 Segways have been sold. It could be the price tag ($5,000+ US). It could be the fact that many of the machines were subject to a recall due to a glitch that caused riders to fall on their faces when the battery ran down. Or, it could be that - gasp - there just really isn’t a purpose for them. Think about it. People who like to walk tend to walk. People who can’t walk have a variety of cheaper options available to them. Now to Segway, uh, segue…

The story of the Ontario man receiving more fines than his vehicle was worth was intriguing for a number of reasons. First, why would anyone in their right mind ride a vehicle capable of doing only 20 km/h share a road with vehicles that can go 10 times as fast? Second, where should one drive a Segway? The promotional video on the company’s Web site shows happy riders in crash helmets careening down sidewalks swerving around wide-eyed pedestrians. And lastly, there is the matter of the charges themselves.

The problem of making an illegal left turn is easy to understand, but what about the issues involving lack of licensing and insurance? Attempting to license his scooter after he had received a ticket for not having the vehicle licensed, poor chap found himself laughed out of the local DMV. Clearly, the officials there did not consider his choice of transportation to fall under their jurisdiction.

So what exactly is a motor vehicle? Oxford defines a vehicle as "a conveyance used on land or in space." OK, so it’s a vehicle and it has a motor, albeit an electric one. But then so does a Toyota Prius.

As far as I can tell, the Segway is a motor vehicle, and as such should be subject to the rules and regulations governing all of them.

If Whistler - not to mention Pemberton - can see the Segway for the motor vehicle it is, it just might make sense to have the two communities crawling with the two-wheeled wonders. Think about it. There’s new provincial legislation giving municipalities receiving revenue from traffic fines. With the introduction of the highly finable, undefinable Segways onto our roadways this could be a boon of unimaginable proportions.

And, if demographics are to be believed, we can assume that most Segway users would be well-heeled, vacationing thrill seekers. Imagine tourists, drunk on that heady mixture of freedom from the workplace and someone else making their bed, careening through the resort; zipping towards Nesters, illegally parking on the steps of Sachi Sushi or maybe even coasting at high-speed down Suicide Hill after tackling Nairn Falls trail. Can you say sustainable source of non-resident income?

Perhaps Segway really could turn out to be The Misunderstood Little Machine That Could.