Segway to Heaven?

The first Segway was made of wood.

Micro mobility was born out of necessity. As bad harvests led to rising oat prices and keeping horses became a luxury, forester Karl Drais introduced his ‘running machine’ to the public: a balance bicycle made of wood.

The plight of the present day is lack of time. Time is a luxury item. No one wants to waste it. Micro mobility offers people customised solutions for covering short distances quickly, safely and easily. Looking around you today, you see micronauts everywhere: businessmen in suits on scooters or tourists on Segways.

The exact opposite of sexy.

These examples illustrate a fundamental problem of micro mobility. It’s anything but cool. It was just the same in 1817 when Karl Drais was derided for his wooden ‘donkey’. Perhaps it’s because micro vehicles are not too comfortable. You often have to wear a helmet, you’re exposed to the elements, they are slow, their charging time is not exactly brilliant – and if you're unlucky, the thing can’t even manage the kerb. There are certainly many people who see such vehicles more as sports equipment or toys than as a serious transport solution. And finally, there is the matter of the design: unlike a real car, the driver does not disappear behind the enchanting facade of the auto body by getting into the car and closing the door. Instead, they are totally exposed to the outside world, like a circus animal on a pedestal in the ring.

Notwithstanding this lack of acceptance, a variety of vehicles crop up each year to solve the problem of that last mile.

What is micro mobility?

First of all, it’s about lighter vehicles that are driven electrically. They allow individual movement in urban spaces. They conserve resources, save space and are an option for people who are looking for a meaningful mobile supplement to their car for short trips.

There are two different types. On the one hand, there is the portable vehicle which covers the shortest routes such as the route between car park and office. On the other hand, the micro-car or scooter have to cope with short distances on the road to transport their passengers from their apartments in the suburbs to an urban hub.

Redefining the rolling suitcase.

Wheeled suitcases are a popular travellers’ accessory. Every day, thousands of people drag them along when crossing airports or railway stations. The Modobag transforms your suitcase into a mode of transport. It transports a person at 12 km/h on flat surfaces and can also charge your mobile devices. People who would rather be on foot can have their luggage follow them – using the Ford CarrE, for instance. This variant of a mobile goods carrier is already in use in many logistics centres to transport shelves to the dispatcher. The Ford model transports people and luggage instead. This rolling platform locates and follows a smartphone at a maximum of 18 km/h and gives the user free use of their hands. The Smartbe follows a similar principle: it’s the first pram that follows the user all on its own.

Hover even better.

We’ve all been dreaming of real hoverboards ever since seeing Back to the Future. In 2015, it seemed as if this skateboard without wheels had been successfully built. But the Lexxus Board that appeared in a promotional video could only hover by using electromagnetic fields. Like, for example, the Hendo Hover or the Maglev. But magnetic levitation is not yet possible for short-distance everyday commuter use.

Instead, e-boards – electrically motorised skateboards – have been sold under the ‘hoverboard’ name since 2013. These are self-balancing platforms on two wheels. A gyroscope in the tread surfaces detects when the driver shifts their body weight forward, backward or to the side, sending corresponding control commands to the hub motors. This technology originally came from Segway. Meanwhile, there are several Segway clones from other manufacturers, such as the Winglet by Toyota. With a top speed of 20 km/h and a range of about 40 kilometres, the Segway models have conquered many areas of outdoor recreation: as patrol vehicles, as golf carts or for polo games.

There are also Segway mutations that roll along on only one wheel. A further modification of the Segway principle is the Uni-Cub by Honda. This electric stool is suitable for indoor use such as trade shows, in large office blocks or for artistic performances: in a music video by the band OK GO, the moving stool (up to 8 km/h) is the central element of an impressive mass choreography sequence with umbrellas. Another example of intelligent chairs was presented by Nissan in 2015. The ProPILOT Chair is not just a moving chair, but also an autonomously acting robot. Once programmed, it recognises when it is no longer needed and will put itself back to its starting position. In this way it can be used in doctors’ waiting rooms or in restaurants.

The idea is good, but the world is not yet ready.

There have been repeated attempts to stage this micro vehicle as cool or particularly clever. During the dot-com bubble in early 2000, it was the scooter; now it’s e-boards. But unlike the smartphone, none of the above micro-vehicles have become an essential part of everyday life. They are not yet competing with the bike or the car – despite Steve Jobs’ prediction that the Segway would be the future of transport in the 21st century.

It doesn’t help that many automakers offer their micro vehicles in combination with a ‘proper’ vehicle. As an add-on integrated in the car, the scooter, skateboard, Bik.e or CarrE can always be brought along, then put to use once you’ve gotten as close as you can in the car. Perhaps one of the most absurd ideas emerged in 2015. Ford presented a patent in which the rear wheel of a car would turn into a micro-wheeled mobile transport. The idea was good, but the world was not yet ready...

The second part of this series is about micro mobility in the sub-A-sector.