December 10th, 2001

Dec 11th

‘Imagine getting up in the morning and finding that your feet were replaced by wheels.’

This is the grab-line for the latest boy’s toy, I mean Human Transporter, invented by Dean Kamen and just released to a waiting world.
So what’s missing from this marvellous interactive scooter that reads your body position and understands where you want it to go?

Answer: Women. What Mr Kamen and his team don’t understand is that most women are already waking up every morning to find that their feet have been replaced by wheels.

First they trip over the plastic train and the teddy on castors, then they wheel the high chair to the breakfast table. After that comes the game show challenge of how many toddlers can be fitted into one buggy without Social Services noticing, Then there is the serious work of getting round Asda with a trolley whose wheels all face in different directions.

Here you come, wearing your new Manolas, staggering up the wind tunnel of the shopping mall, pushing your own body weight in beef burgers, and a nice man who holds the world record for the longest uninterrupted period of wearing denim, offers you a stand-on scooter.

Do you: A) call the police. B) Call Pest Control C) call me and find out when my next column is due. D) Call Mr Kamen’s wife/girlfriend and ask what he was dreaming of when he went to bed one night in his denim pyjamas and woke with a scooter under his denim pillow.
Do men ever grow up? Is it part of their charm that they don’t or can’t? Has anybody done genetic research on what makes boys love toys, especially toys with motors and wheels?

I suppose we should be thankful. One of them invented the wheel, and then the rest of them had to wait millennia to join it up with the internal combustion engine. It’s a poignant thought, that wait through time, and when women complain men have it easy, I say, look how long they’ve suffered before Bernie Ecclestone gave them Formula One.

The trouble is that Mr Kamen is a benevolent inventor, and like most Californians, environmentally aware. His scooter is not a rip-roaring mow ’em down, but a gyroscopically balanced, 17MPH, electric skateboard that can go up and down kerbs.

It sounds just right for girls, who are supposedly not into speed and sleekness, though perhaps I should include a picture of my car here. The tragic mismatch is that boys love the idea of a human transporter and are prepared to look like idiots riding one – remember all those suited businessmen and the fold-up self-propelled scooter of last year? Yet they will soon tire of something quite as boring, and let’s say it, slow, as Mr Kamen’s wheelie revolution.

Women are the natural market for a new personal urban transporter. They want to get around with their clutter and their kids and they don’t need powered sex-appeal to feel good about themselves. Alas, absolutely nothing can be fitted on the Kamen scooter – not shopping, not sprogs, and there is nowhere to put your make-up bag.
Why did they test this thing on geeks? Why didn’t they ask Posh Spice and Brooklyn to go down Bond St on it, then hand it over to Graham Norton?

When Apple billionaire Steve Jobs wowed the world by saying that cities would be designed round Kamen’s scooter, he must have been thinking of special silicon cities for computer nerds only. If you want to go about with nothing but an i-book on your back, then fine, but I don’t want to live in a city without mums and gay men. Where’s the fun in that?
Transport is the most serious issue facing planners and politicians in the twenty-first century. None of us can avoid travelling, and mass transit is less frequent and efficient and available than it was fifty years ago. In the 1960’s, the decision to opt for the car as the way forward, and to axe or underfund the railways, has left us with a situation where more and more people are moving about, and the car is the only realistic way of doing so.
Get women on board. How many women were involved in this hugely expensive scooter project? If we are going to pour money into developing genuine transport alternatives, then women have to be represented fifty-fifty with men. The truth is that if it doesn’t work for women – it doesn’t work.

I am told that a big selling point of the new scooter is that you only have to shift your body for it to know what you want – men would like that, it’s what women have been doing for them for centuries. Time for the wheels of change?

Guardian Newspapers Tuesday January 1, 2002