Doug Field: From Segway to Tesla
One of the most-anticipated upcoming electric cars is the Tesla Model 3, a lower-priced Tesla that is expected to cost approximately $35,000. It’s interesting the engineer who was given the tremendously challenging task of essentially cutting the price of a Tesla Model S in half is the same engineer who brought the first self-balancing personal mobility device to the world: the original Segway. Given how remarkable the Segway technology is, it’s interesting that Tesla has made no effort to tell the public its new Vice President of Engineering created the only robotic local vehicle the world knows anything about.
The remarkable engineer is Doug Field. He’s the only innovator I know who has worked for Dean Kamen, Steve Jobs, and now Elon Musk. After working at a few companies including Ford), Doug started working with Kamen and became employee #1 at Segway. He built the team and the technology, creating the first gyro-balancing vehicle (one where the rider’s weight distribution is monitored amazingly 100 times per second by the on-board computer) and introduced it into the market. Anyone that has ridden a Segway knows how incredible the technology is. Doug and his partners also deserve kudos for introducing something so new in our very litigious society.
While the Segway is a fantastic technical achievement, it has yet to become a market success. In some ways, the book Code Name Ginger by Steve Kemper undermined the launch of the Segway. It told the public the Segway was the “future of transportation.” But once revealed, and having only a 13 mph top speed, few saw it as a replacement of their “transportation”—their automobile. If Segway leaders had been able to position the vehicle as a new “link” in the “mobility chain,” would we have seen somewhat different results in the market? Regardless, the Segway was “early.”
Today, with many new shared-use mobility services available, cities are getting more serious about solving the first-last mile problem, enabling residents to access public transit services more easily. Segways are being included in these recent studies.
A very different approach focuses on designing new (planned) communities that use Segways in the community interior. The micro-vehicles are essentially robots, and self-balancing shared local mobility systems are possible if proper travel corridors can be offered for the Segways. After riding a Segway to one’s local destination, the vehicle self-drives itself to where new demand is, something many urban bikeshare systems wish they could do. This is exactly how Steve Jobs saw the future of Segway: that we would design cities around them. I believe this is coming.
A truly gifted engineer, Doug Field was unable to solve Segway’s market challenges by creating new Segway products. (He tried, and created four-wheel vehicles using Segway tech and others). In the summer of 2008, Steve Jobs recruited Doug to be Apple’s Vice President of Product Design, supporting the famous Jony Ives, Apple’s design guru, and having more than 2,000 engineers under him. But with mobility in his veins, it was not too much of a surprise when Tesla hired him to be their Vice President of Engineering in the fall of 2013.
Now at Tesla, Doug has led the engineering effort to create the new Tesla Model 3. Imagine how challenging that program is, essentially taking a $70,000 electric car and making a new model available for just $35,000, while offering similar range and performance! I would expect nearly every major component in the Model 3 will have to be creatively de-contented, so a $60 interior component needs to cost just $30, but needs to look even better than the original component.
I do not think Tesla could have found a better engineer for this challenge—one informed by his Segway work to completely rethink electric mobility vehicles inside and out.
On October 24, 2013, Tesla issued a press release announcing their hiring of Doug Field. The announcement only mentioned Doug’s background at Ford and Apple. There was no mention of his leadership role at Segway—none.
Since Doug left Segway, the company has had a number of owners. In April of this year, the company was bought by the Chinese smart mobility start-up Ninebot (and Xiaomi which invested $90-million). As the Segway patents come to an end, a wide array of light personal self-balancing mobility devices are coming to market around the globe.
Few might know who Doug Field is, but he is putting his mark, in a significant way, on the broad world of new electric mobility.