- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2006

Thieves used to break into as many as five cars a week in the parking garage at Los Angeles’ Union Station. Then the Metropolitan Transportation Authority came up with a simple solution: They put a security officer on a Segway Human Transporter.

“The first day that one of the security officers was on the device was pretty much the last day there was a break-in,” said Robin Blair, a transportation planning manager for the MTA, which owns about 19 Segways.

Although the electric, self-balancing Segway scooter never quite caught on with commuters the way its backers had predicted five years ago, the gizmo has found a growing market among law-enforcement agencies, with more than 100 departments around the world now signed on as customers and many others testing the device.

The niche market, coupled with a burst of interest from Europeans struggling with gas prices much higher than in the U.S., have breathed new life into the Segway.

And Segway Inc. President and Chief Executive James Norrod, hoping to parlay the growth into a payday for the original investors in the scooter, has made grooming the company for an initial public offering in the next few years a top priority.

Mr. Norrod said he was brought in as CEO last year for just that purpose by Segway’s principal investors, Credit Suisse Group and the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, best known for its early investment in Google Inc.

Gauging Segway’s prospects in an IPO is difficult, since the company will not reveal its yearly revenue or whether it is profitable. Mr. Norrod will only say that “tens of thousands” of Segways have been sold around the world, and that the company’s revenue has been growing by at least 50 percent over each of the last few years.

He said high fuel prices have made many potential customers take another look at the Segway, especially in Europe, where gas can be twice as expensive as it is in the U.S.

“That (high price of gas) has been a driver, a real driver of our business over there,” Mr. Norrod said.

International sales were only about 5 percent of Segway’s business two years ago, but by the end of this year could account for as much as 40 percent — much of it from law-enforcement customers and commuters struggling with high gas prices in Europe.

The company says the Human Transporter gets the equivalent of about 450 miles per gallon, based on the amount of gas it would take to create the electricity needed to run it.

For police and security users, many of whom bought the device with grants from the Homeland Security Department and other federal agencies, the fuel efficiency is only an added bonus.

In Los Angeles County, MTA’s Blair said officers prize it because it allows them to stand a head taller than they would on foot, so they can see over crowds and cars and project a more prominent presence at events like the Rose Bowl parade.

The scooters, which travel as fast as 12.5 mph, also allow an officer on patrol to cover a much greater distance than on foot, and go indoors, onto elevators and other places bigger vehicles can’t. Mr. Blair said the added efficiency allows a force to cut down on the number of patrol officers on each shift and recoup the Segway’s cost in as quickly as a month.

In other applications, several bomb squads such as those in Ventura County, Calif., and Little Rock, Ark., are using Segways to transport officers in bombproof and hazardous-material suits that can weigh as much as 100 pounds.

The company is also selling its “smart motion” technology — the software and chips that allow a Segway to balance on two wheels — to robotic developers at universities and in the military. The technology will also be used in a robotic toy made by WowWee Ltd., maker of the “Robosapien” toy robot, which is due out later this year.

But despite the enthusiasm among law-enforcement and robotics researchers, the interest in the Segway is still a far cry from what its supporters had predicted when it was unveiled five years ago, bursting onto the frenzied technology scene with the code name “Ginger” in a debut that belongs in the hype hall of fame.

Its inventor, Dean Kamen, famously predicted in a 2001 Time magazine interview that the Segway “will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.” In the same story, venture capitalist John Doerr predicted the company would be the fastest ever to reach $1 billion in sales. At today’s prices, the company would have to sell somewhere around 175,000 to 250,000 units per year for the Segway to rack up $1 billion in sales.

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