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Self-Balancing Personal Transporters

– in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 14th January 2009.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Mr. Frank Roy.)

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 7:03 pm, 14th January 2009

To paraphrase Shakespeare, I come to legalise Segways, not to praise them. The evil that machines do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their cogs, and so it could be with the self-balancing personal transporter. My goal today is to change that. I seek agreement to a pathway to determine how this creative, convenient and eco-friendly device may be formally embraced by the UK.

I declare an interest. Segway loaned and subsequently succeeded in selling me a self-balancing personal transporter. I have since got so versed in its use that I believe I am now the most well-balanced parliamentarian in the UK, albeit with the assistance of gyroscopes—something I would have welcomed in 2008, but I digress.

I have personally converted 120 British citizens to the personal transporter, or PT for short. Converts include those outstanding presenters Penny Smith and Kate Garraway on that excellent programme "GMTV". All of them have seen how PTs can help with pollution, traffic and even commuter stress levels. In this debate I will explain what a PT is, its benefits and what I hope are reasonable steps for us to take next in pursuit of my ambition.

A self-balancing personal transporter is a celebration of human ingenuity, electrical innovation and the laws of physics. In fact, it appears to defy gravity by mysteriously keeping itself and a passenger of any shape and size upright, with no visible means of support, bar the wheels. But this is no illusion. Twin gyroscopes lie at its heart. The device is controlled by pedals. Without the operator's assistance, it will not travel anywhere. Once on board, the operator directs it by leaning forwards or backwards on the pedals, and moving the handlebar left or right. It is switched on and off with an electronic key—and that is it. The only transport device that we could think of which is simpler to use is a Space Hopper, the two differences being a smaller choice of colours in the case of the Segway and the fact that one does not hold on to a self-balancing personal transporter by its ears. I have always wondered what the Health and Safety Executive's view of an underinflated or, worse still, an over-pressurised Space Hopper might be. It surely carries with it the risk of explosion. No such problem exists with the PT.

As I said, one working example is the Segway PT, a specific model, and I invite the Minister to try one outside the Chamber after our debate. The top speed is 12.5 mph, at which velocity a PT consumes around 190 W of continuous electrical energy. They have a range of 23 miles on a full five-hour charge. Segways were invented by a Dean Kamen and are manufactured in Boston, USA.

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Photo of Andrew Pelling Andrew Pelling Independent, Croydon Central

I have had the opportunity to see the Segway in operation in Washington DC in the United States, where there are wide sidewalks. Surely it is not a good idea to legalise the operation of Segways here; I cannot see how they will work safely on our roads or pavements.

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

That is a fair point, but I offer a reassuring answer. First, I use a Segway on the United Kingdom's roads, and indeed the byways of Montgomeryshire, and not once have I come to grief even though I have the road-based model. Secondly, there are off-road models. If the hon. Gentleman's roads and paths are not as flat and smooth as those in America, he simply needs to get the version with the wider tyres. He could play golf with that as well. I can see that that reassures him. I have another convert.

I have told the House what PTs are, but that does not begin to describe the miracle that they represent. They are not primarily a replacement for bicycles; they are a replacement for cars. At more than £4,000 each they are aimed at people who know that the average speed of city traffic can be 8 mph, which is 4.5 mph less than a Segway's maximum speed. Their commuting effectiveness was proved by James Brown's interesting research at the university of Derby, in collaboration with the BBC. Segways are an antidote to gridlock and are parked in the time that it takes to lean them against a wall.

For those whose work requires them to patrol areas, self-balancing personal transporters have already proved their worth. I am told that 750 police forces around the world use PTs. They are also used at Heathrow airport and other locations around the UK. We estimate that a bobby on the beat can cover three times more area using a PT than on foot patrol.

As for the public, some prefer to walk, and that is fine, but others do not or cannot. Those with mobility problems find the PTs, with their powerful gyroscopes, safe and secure. They are almost impossible to fall off. When I investigated the accident record, I found that one President George W. Bush did fall off one. Segway experts analysed the photographic footage of his misfortune and concluded that the probable cause of his accident was that he had not turned it on. Gentleman journalist Piers Morgan ridiculed Bush for that, and then fell off one as well. Probably inadvertently, he attempted to scale a high kerb, rather as one might ride a motorbike over a wall and then be surprised by the ensuing crash. That President Bush and Piers Morgan are the only two notable Segway casualties on earth should reassure normal citizens that, when used intelligently, this technology is safe.

Environmentally, PTs are absolutely in line with Government targets for carbon dioxide reductions. Personal transporter fuel, which is electricity, causes 16.6 g of CO2 per kilometre. By comparison, let us consider human fuel, known more commonly as food. A beef eater, by which I mean an eater of beef not a Yeoman of the Guard, who could of course be vegetarian for all I know, causes about 497 g of CO2 emissions per kilometre by expelling energy from that food. Egg eaters produce more than 105 g per km, and that does not even take into account the 11.25 g per km that people create merely by breathing. It can therefore be revealed, for the first time in British history and the history of the House of Commons, that it is greener to go to work on a personal transporter than to go to work on an egg—even if you hold your breath.

Per passenger, a London Underground train produces three times as many carbon dioxide emissions, a small scooter four times as many and the average petrol-fuelled car more than eight times as many as a personal transporter. PTs are environmentally unsurpassed by any motorised transport available in the United Kingdom. Car-pooling and public transport are valuable, but PTs take eco-friendly travel to new levels. Even their carbon production cost can be offset.

With more than half a million sales globally, the public have already voted for PTs en masse with their wallets, so what is the problem in the United Kingdom? Understandably, given that this is new technology, the Department for Transport has been cautious. That is fair enough—it is the Department's job to protect the public from unnecessary risks. However, I can find no restriction in law to bar PTs from Britain's roads. I believe that we simply need clarity.

To help the Department, we examined every part of the PT in preparation for the debate—the pedals, the wheels and the motor—and they all seemed to conform with the current law. We even tried to test the motor to establish whether the continuous peak power output fell below the notional 200 W limit for electric bicycles on a rolling road. What we discovered was remarkable: the power usage was so low that we could not even measure it.

That is a moot point in any case, because continuous peak power is only a concern in relation to top speed. PTs are regulated to a speed of 12.5 mph uphill, downhill and on the level. Most bicycles can travel faster than that. PTs even have an auto-slow mechanism which operates if people try to travel too fast or the batteries are low. Incidentally, the meagre power usage facilitates the exceptional 23-mile range.

In my opinion, existing legislation does not outlaw PTs. They have an operator to assist them in the form of pedals, modest power usage—in line with that of electric bicycles—and a speed restrictor. Indeed, they are safer than bicycles, because the gyroscopes keep riders upright even when they are not moving. Moreover, riding a PT is easier to learn than cycling. This morning, live before millions of viewers, "GMTV" presenters Kate and Penny learned to ride a PT in just a minute, never having been on one before. Since November, I have taught people aged from nine to 87 to use a PT. None of them experienced any trouble, and most of them wanted one afterwards! I even conducted a Segway session at my local place of worship in Newtown, the friendly and inspirational Hope community church. Its popularity was, in a word, miraculous.

But now for some shocking news: the PT is wanted by the police. However, it is wanted not for law-breaking but for law-enforcing. Sutton police in London have already tested it and they loved it. Other forces and organisations are also eager. Commander Hussain of the Metropolitan police has said he is keen to conduct a trial of the device. What greater endorsement is needed?

This is what I think should happen next. I ask the Minister to allow trials in February 2009 under section 44 of the Road Traffic Act 1988, following which a report would be made to him in March 2009. He could then make an informed decision in April 2009 about the status of self-balancing personal transporters. When it comes to categorisation, grouping them with mobility carriages is an option, but I think that they should be subject to the same regulation as electric bicycles owing to technical similarities in regard to, for instance, pedal assistance and the limited top speed. Perhaps I could discuss the options with the Minister and his team in the coming weeks.

In the context of mobility problems, congestion and climate change, the adoption of the personal transporter for public use is not only attractive but essential. My goal is not party advantage but public advantage through good decisions based on solid science and fact. I have always respected the Minister for approaching such matters in a similar vein. I believe that he and, indeed, the Government are truly committed to addressing climate changes that threaten our eco-sphere. Now it is time for them to stand up and be counted.

I appeal for courage, and I appeal to the Minister to be mindful of past lessons. The Duke of Wellington said:

"I see no reason to suppose that these machines will ever force themselves into general use."

That was not a 19th-centiury premonition about Segways—the duke was referring to steam trains—but, prophetically, his words echo some of the ill-informed commentary on PTs and, in my view, against progress.

Let us consider instead the words of Anna Bluman, the remarkable and forward-looking marketing manager at Kingdom shopping centre in Scotland. She reports:

"we have been successfully using a Segway in the malls for over a year now. The Segway is used in partnership with Fife Constabulary with both Centre Police Officers and security staff using the unit to increase their visibility and effectiveness. It offers a reassuring presence to customers in the malls and also acts as an 'ice-breaker', gaining visible interest from members of the public, thereby increasing interaction with security and police officers."

Here is a final word of testimony from my very good friend, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, Mr. Watson. After trying it out only this afternoon, the Minister said, "Yeah, it's bloody great—really bloody good. I want one." This caused terror in the eyes of his driver, whose fear of replacement by ministerial Segway even overrode his shock at the Minister's uncharacteristic departure from parliamentary language.

Riding a self-balancing personal transporter does not end gridlock or global warming, but it is part of the solution—an ingenious response inspired by carbon, convenience and common sense. Working together, we can bring to the UK the benefits of this extraordinary technology, proved by users globally over millions of hours. It is a device that is greener than walking, and wanted by the police. That is my case for the PTs.

In conclusion, the adoption of self-balancing personal transporters may not in itself be as earth-shattering as a moon landing, yet we must never forget that saving our planet will not be achieved through one giant leap by mankind, but rather through one small step after another by every man and woman. Let us take one more step today.

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Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport 7:17 pm, 14th January 2009

I congratulate Lembit Öpik on securing this debate. I expected nothing less from him than a very informed and equally entertaining contribution to the deliberations of this House, and we certainly were not disappointed in that. I should say at the outset that I have already passed a note to my officials asking for research on CO2 emissions in respect of eggs and travelling to work.

This debate needs to be had—and to continue. It follows on from a meeting that the hon. Gentleman and other representatives of the all-party intelligent transport group attended at the Department for Transport in November 2008. It also foreshadows a further meeting that, as agreed at the November discussion, he is to attend with officials of my Department later this month. I am glad that this debate offers me the opportunity to put on the record the Government's position on this fascinating development.

Self-balancing personal transporters can be a controversial subject. While there can be some passion on the part of those seeking use of these machines on public roads and/or on pedestrian and cycle facilities, there can be equal intensity on the part of others opposed to such use. The former point to benefits such as possible reductions in CO2 emissions and in congestion—provided that people switch from cars to these vehicles—while the latter consider that road safety could be adversely affected. The hon. Gentleman certainly falls into the former category as one who is passionate about the possibilities of self-balancing personal transporters.

A further concern is that any modal change from walking and cycling to these vehicles could reduce health benefits derived from walking or cycling, which the Government are seeking to promote. When I addressed the all-party cycling group this afternoon, there was an issue as to how this feeds into other healthy living agendas, which I know the hon. Gentleman also supports.

Equally, I have to say that the members of the all-party cycling group had certain views about whether cycle paths should be used by Segways. It has been suggested that because Segways are relatively expensive, they are expected to be used as an alternative to cars. However, in view of their lack of weather protection and seating, it seems likely that they would more readily replace walking and cycling. In that case, the potential for reduction in CO2 emissions would be negligible. I assure the hon. Gentleman however that I intend to take an entirely balanced, if not gyroscopic, view of the matter.

The Government recognise the potential benefits of moving to greater electrification of both public and private transport. Electric vehicles that comply with road traffic law requirements benefit from advantageous treatment by the UK tax system. For example, they are exempt from annual vehicle excise duty and electricity is, of course, taxed at a significantly lower rate than petrol and diesel.

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that there is a range of different electrical personal vehicles, and it is important to remember that legislation takes no account of any particular proprietary products, but speaks in generic terms. The vehicles available include a variety of powered wheelchairs and mobility scooters, known in law as invalid carriages, and these may be used only by people with disabilities. Such vehicles are subject to their own specific primary and secondary legislation. According to class, they are permitted to use pedestrian footways at a maximum speed of 4 mph, and roads at a maximum speed of 8 mph. They are the only vehicles that are permitted to be driven or ridden on pedestrian footways.

There are also different makes of electrically assisted pedal cycles, which also have their own legislation. Like other cycles, EAPCs may be used on the road and on dedicated cycle facilities, but—unlike powered wheelchairs and mobility scooters—not on pedestrian footways. There are some futuristic concept personal electrical vehicles being developed by one or two of the car manufacturers, but I am not aware at the moment of proposals to bring them into general public use, whether on the road or on pedestrian or cycle paths.

The hon. Gentleman referred specifically to the Segway. I will give an outline description of the Segway, for reasons of the argument that will then follow. Courtesy of the hon. Gentleman, Members may have tried or seen the Segway. The single user stands on a platform between two side-by-side wheels, balanced by gyroscopes, and controls motion, direction, braking and so on by means of hand controls on a post attached to the platform and by body movement. I do not hesitate to agree with the hon. Gentleman and others who promote the use of Segways that they are ingenious. I congratulate those who developed it, and British Aerospace, which developed the gyroscopes in Plymouth.

We have been told that Segways can travel at up to 12.5 mph. That is, of course, much faster than the 4 mph limit for invalid carriages using pedestrian facilities, but I understand that lower speeds can be set by means of special keys. I know that several Members of both Houses have had the opportunity to try out the vehicles, as I witnessed this afternoon in St. Stephen's yard. The hon. Gentleman is well known as the Segway king.

Let me turn to the Department for Transport's view on Segways and similar machines, which was outlined some time ago in a fact sheet that is available on the DFT website. The Department cannot interpret the law—that, of course, is rightly a matter for the courts—but we can have an opinion on how it might be interpreted. Segway use in this country, on private land and with the permission of landowners who can ensure safe use, is acceptable as the law stands. I recognise that these ingenious vehicles might be found helpful, for instance by staff needing to cover considerable areas where larger vehicles may not be an option, such as within airport terminals. Indeed, I am well aware of the trial of a Segway at Heathrow airport, as a result of which the one that was being used was purchased after the trial ended. However, I point out that only one Segway was being used rather than a range of Segways, which might have been what was conveyed by the hon. Gentleman's description. I have no doubt that in other off-road areas, such as warehouses, large industrial sites and show grounds, they could be useful and effective.

On the other hand, in our view Segways are mechanically propelled vehicles. As such, if they are intended for use on public roads, they must be subject to road traffic law rules and restrictions in the same way as they apply to other powered two-wheeled vehicles such as mopeds and motorcycles.

I am conscious that Segways are permitted on the road and on dedicated pedestrian and cycle facilities in some other countries. The way that they are treated in law and the way that they are used—for example, on the road, on pedestrian footways or in cycle facilities—varies significantly from place to place, not only from country to country but within countries, too. DFT officials are seeking further clarity on the way in which the vehicles are handled.

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

The Minister might want to take this as a rhetorical point. I have looked at the law in some detail and I would guess that I am something of an expert on it. It seems to me that the Segway—or self-balancing personal transporter, as I am not particularly promoting any one brand—conforms almost precisely to the regulations as they pertain to electric bicycles. Perhaps after the debate, at some point, we can discuss that further.

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Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport

I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's interpretation and the dictionary that he has used to determine the meaning of the word "pedals". In my dictionary, a pedal is described as a foot-operated lever used to control a vehicle or machine while pedalling is to propel a cycle using pedals. In my view, those descriptions cannot apply to Segways. However, at the meeting in November with representatives of the all-party intelligent transport group, my ministerial colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick, suggested that what is really needed, in the long term, is a Europe-wide view of what Segways are intended for and where they are permitted to be used. That is not clear at present. The machines are used and treated in legal terms in different ways not just in different countries but in different parts of those countries.

Is the vehicle intended for use on the road? Is it intended for use on dedicated cycle tracks or pedestrian facilities, or for other uses? I note that today it has been suggested that cycle paths might be the way forward. It is germane that the European Commission is currently undertaking public consultation about the framework directive on two and three-wheeled vehicles and quadricycles. It is certainly relevant that one EU member state recently proposed to amend national legislation to permit Segway use on their roads. We are carefully watching the development of that proposal and the discussions about it, and it has been put on a six-month standstill.

I recognise that there is potential, however. We are due to hold further discussions in the next few weeks, and we will look at the issues that arise. I note that the hon. Gentleman believes that the Segway and other machines may meet the requirements for electrically motorised pedal vehicles, but there is some doubt about whether that is the case, so we need dialogue—offers have been made, not to the hon. Gentleman but to the company—with officials and all concerned to look at the interpretation and consider the route forward.

Section 44 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 may offer a remote possibility, although I do not want to raise any hopes. The provision covers exemptions from certain requirements for the use of equipment, but it may not reduce the requirement for registration. However, if we can have clarity about the intended uses, there may be ways forward.

In conclusion, the opportunity for the debate is very much welcomed—congratulations to the hon. Gentleman. The meeting that is due to take place in the next few weeks is a further step forward. We do not have a closed mind and shall take a balanced view of the opportunities.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned .

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