Segway’s out; Israel’s Muve a new way to move around

Car designer-inventor meets 3D software company to produce a cleantech ‘backpack on wheels’ that eases congestion

Benny Shimon (left) and Amir Zaid show off the Muve (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Benny Shimon (left) and Amir Zaid show off the Muve (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Where the Segway failed, the Muve will succeed. Thus predicts Amir Zaid, inventor, with the help of design software company Autodesk, of what he hopes will be the next big thing in urban transportation.

As global warming plays havoc with the weather and giant clouds of air pollution threaten to choke China, many corporations have “greened up” their act, implementing environmental-awareness programs for employees, reducing their carbon footprint, and, sometimes, even changing manufacturing or delivery methods — if for no other reason than to build their reputation as a green company, an important selling point in many industries today.

But it’s fair to say that multinational Autodesk has gone above and beyond the call of green duty. Not many companies would give away, for next to nothing ($50), their core products, worth about $150,000, to start-ups that the company believes will improve the environment (the value is based on the retail cost of up to five commercial licenses of each application). But Autodesk does, and has for the past three years, as part of its Autodesk Cleantech Partners Program. Now in 46 countries, the Partners Program has provided Autodesk software and training to dozens of companies that are designing what may be the next big thing in cleantech.

Autodesk, for those unfamiliar with the company, is the world’s largest provider of engineering 3D design software (what was once known as CAD, computer-aided design software). Autodesk tools are used by some of the world’s largest manufacturers to design cars, planes, computers, office buildings, and even movies, said Ron Kimchi, director of Autodesk Israel. “The movie ‘Avatar’ was designed using Autodesk software, as have 60 other movies — 17 of which were nominated for Oscars,” Kimchi said during a Tel Aviv press conference Wednesday in which he presented details about the Cleantech Partners Program. “We want to spread the word about this program, and recruit promising start-ups to work with our tools.”

So what’s in it for Autodesk? Nothing, actually, said Kimchi. “There are no partnership requirements or other agreements companies have to sign in order to participate in the program. Of course we would be more than happy to work with them when their project is ready,

The Autodesk tools suite that start-ups get includes the company’s latest 3D rendering software, as well as several other applications specifically geared to cleantech design. One of them, a materials database, enables a designer to take a completed design and search for eco-friendlier materials that will reduce the carbon footprint of the item without increasing costs. For example, the program will search for replacements for rare earth elements in cellphones. Extracting those elements is very damaging to the environment, and if there are any reasonably priced substitutes that can do the job, and have less of a carbon footprint, the materials database will suggest them. Other tools do the same thing for vehicle design, suggesting ways to reduce wind shear in order to allow maximum speed with minimum wind interference, as well as for building design, pointing to which way to position windows in order maximize sunlight and reduce the need for electricity use, and so on.

Israel is an important site for Autodesk, said Kimchi, especially in cleantech innovation. Nearly a dozen start-ups have joined the program here, getting full training in use of the system and support from Autodesk partner Omnitech Israel, a local training and IT firm.

Which brings us to Muve, one of the start-ups in the Cleantech Partner Program. “In many cities in Europe today you cannot bring your car into the city center, and this is a trend that will continue to grow,” said Zaid. “More people are going to have to commute using buses and trains.”

But mass transit only goes so far. You still have to schlep to get to your office, the theater, the museum or the mall. You could walk, which is what most people do, but Zaid believes there are enough people who will plunk down $2,000 for a Muve. “You can fold it up for transporting, like a backpack on wheels, and when you get off the train, you open it up and start traveling,” said Zaid who, along with Muve business development manager Benny Shimon, showed off a beta version of Muve at the Autodesk event.

“We are trying to get the weight down to between 12 and 15 kilos, with a speed of about 20 to 25 kilometers per hour,” Zaid said. The device runs on electricity and can be plugged into an office outlet for recharging, and includes things like as disc brakes and other automobile-like features (Zaid worked in design in Italy for several years, including a stint at Lamborghini, he said). It’s much more sophisticated than a scooter, with smart features that will make moving around town quick and easy; a future Muve version, said Shimon, will have an interface to a cellphone app, allowing users to program in a route and let the vehicle find its way to the destination all by itself.

Zaid is convinced that the Muve will get an enthusiastic response from consumers because its price point — about $2,000 — is much more reasonable than the Segway’s $6,000. The Segway debuted to much public enthusiasm in 2001 after a major PR campaign, but sales have been far lower than its manufacturer anticipated. Zaid believes that the reason is the Segway’s high price. “As a transportation option it makes sense, but we will offer more features for less money, so I think we will be able to succeed where Segway failed,” Zaid said, adding that he expects the first Muves to be ready for sale later this year.

The Muve owes much of its existence to Autodesk, Shimon said. “We showed them our idea and they, via Omnitech, showed us exactly how to turn our vision into a reality. We started working with Autodesk last June, and by December we had a working prototype.” That’s amazingly fast for any product, much less a sophisticated transportation vehicle that has hundreds of parts and features. “It just shows the power of the Autodesk platform,” said Shimon. “I am sure that the company’s investment in us is going to pay off.”

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