Drawing the Line - The Segway Syndrome

It's said that there's beauty in simplicity, and there certainly is a special beauty in the simplicity of motorcycles. Some friends of mine do a special enduro every year using cheap, old dirtbikes they salvage from the backs of junk-filled garages and the virtual depths of Craigslist and eBay. A couple of weekends spent cleaning varnish out of float bowls, filing points and replacing broken coil wires, and they're ready to set off down the trail in a haze of sweet-smelling two-stroke oil.

Most new vehicles are a far cry from those old dirtbikes, mechanically and electronically. For automobiles, crash safety standards and market demands have meant ever-increasing weight. Power has had to keep pace, so the complexities of impact structures and crush zones have been joined by those of four-valve cylinder heads and variable valve timing. Emissions can't increase as the power increases, so there are the additional intricacies of direct injection and other "clean" tech. It's a vicious circle, with new regulations and new market strategies requiring complex new technologies.

Motorcycles have had it easy in comparison. Bike engines were efficient and pretty clean to begin with, so additional levels of complexity have been minimal. Keeping engines simple can be deceptive, however-witness Harley-Davidson's ongoing efforts to keep its V-twins air-cooled. H-D has been employing world-class research, spending untold man-hours and money to make its engines meet emission, noise and reliability standards without going to liquid cooling. That's a lot of work to "keep it simple."

Cutting weight is the simplest route to better performance, but the move to new materials and techniques isn't so simple. Processes like vacuum/pressure aluminum casting and magnesium die-casting require fairly intensive R&D; and tooling expenditures.

Even though keeping motorcycles simple may not have been easy, they still retain a functional clarity reminiscent of earlier times. This may be changing, however. Anti-lock brakes, traction control and electronically controlled suspension are adding levels of complexity we haven't seen before. More electronic changes are on the way.

Enter the Segway, a two-wheeled electric scooter that's the poster-child for complexity run amok. With its side-by-side wheels, the Segway is inherently unstable, and in fact unrideable without the full assistance of a powerful computer running some serious software.

The Segway was touted as the ultimate urban-transport device, and was promoted as being so revolutionary that it would take over our city centers. That didn't happen-it was too expensive, too hard to recharge and not as safe as advertised. (In a severe blow to the Segway's safety record, the company owner was recently killed on one.)

The basic purpose of the Segway was personal transportation on two wheels. Sound familiar? For ease of use and convenient storage it was made small, with a stand-up riding position and those side-by side wheels. The problem was those specifications required maximum complexity because they also dictated maximum instability. The goal was simple, while the end result and the technology to achieve it were exactly the opposite.

Will we someday see motorcycles so complex that they would be unrecognizable as the machines we now know? So complex that they would no longer have beauty in simplicity? I'm encouraged to think that it won't go that far. Current new levels of complexity like anti-lock brakes and traction control are add-ons, not primary systems like the Segway's stability control, and the base bike still works if the add-on systems are disabled. But the trend is certainly toward increased complexity, and it's not hard to imagine an attempt to build a motorcycle as wide of the mark as the Segway.

Think about my friends and their old dirtbikes. Then imagine a discarded Segway moldering in the back of someone's garage. You're not going to get that thing rideable unless its internal systems work as they did when new, both software and hardware. If there's spark and gas, keep kicking that ancient enduro and something will happen. That antique Segway? Good luck...