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Transport Gone Wrong: The Life and Death of the Segway

You've seen them rolling down the street here in downtown Austin, as well as in most metropolitan areas, the Segway was once considered the "hottest invention" that was going to "revolutionize" how we got around town. Now with its parent company ending production we take a look back at the almost rise and inevitable fall of the Segway Human Transporter.

In 2001 project "Ginger" was introduced to the world on ABC's Good Morning America and even had the show's hosts trying the "world's first human transporter" riding it in front of a live audience. It was the Segway's first public viewing and drew a lot of excitement and buzz and companies like FedEx, Amazon, and the U.S. Postal Service expressed real interest to purchase fleets of Segways. The device's inventor Dean Kamen had proclaimed that Segway would be the fastest company in history to hit a billion dollars in sales and had expected to produce up to 10,000 units a week after its first year. It was one of Amazon's hottest preorder items in 2002 and at just under $5000 it was no small amount of money to plunk down. It seemed that Segway was poised to become the next big thing in transportation.

But that didn't happen.

The Segway had problems. Lots of problems. The economy was in the process of taking a downturn so the release of the expensive device didn't achieve any sales over the initial preorders to meet those hopeful production and sales expectations. Then there was the Segway's mechanical and software issues. Those problems caused a lot of injuries. In 2003, all 6000 units sold were recalled due to a battery glitch that would cause the self balancing scooter to fall over. (You may even remember President George W. Bush's famous fall back then...) Segway was then forced to recall all of the 23,500 units in existence again 2006 due a dangerous software glitch that could cause a rider to be thrown from the vehicle. There were so many problems that cities like San Francisco went as far as to ban the Segway from its streets as well as funded campaigns asking for a ban to prevent them from being used on sidewalks. The device's many mechanical and software issues were just one of the factors causing sales to never really take off but it wasn't Segway's biggest problem. "There was a significant dork factor. It was never truly socially accepted," as stated by one of Segway's early employeees. Remember Paul Blart: Mall Cop? That pretty much summed up what the public thought of Segways. It didn't have a cool, fun factor to it. To cap off its first decade, British entrepreneur Jimi Heselden who purchased Segway in 2010, died just a few months after acquiring Segway in an accident while riding one. It was not reolutionizing transport. Segway was perceived as overpriced, dangerous and a public menace.

But Segway did finally push through its problems to find a market for itself though and that was in tourism. Millions of people throughout the world have ridden a Segway to do "walking tours" without having to walk. This became the Segway's niche market and it was never able to operate itself from being known as the tour vehicle for the "older" crowd who was drawn to it. The Segway also discovered a sales problem. Most tour companies that used the Segway were not purchasing new vehicles and were only using their existing fleet of aging vehicles which made their image problem even worse. I finally rode one myself on a tour in San Antonio in 2018 just to give it a try (I had wanted one in 2001 but never getting one for the same reasons listed above) and while it was a unique experience it wasn't fun and it definitely made me feel like a dork. I won't be riding one again, that's for sure, as their decaying fleets of vehicles will soon be making their way to the junkyard and no more Segways being produced to replace them.

Looking back at Segway and taking an objective look at its problems, stigma, and lack of sales it did accomplish something truly wonderful. It got us all to think differently about how we get around. It was exciting tech when it was released and it undoubtedly inspired the personal electric vehicle market that is taking the world by storm now. Electric skateboards, scooters, eBikes, and Teslas are becoming the new normal and I for one am excited to see what's next for Segway who has moved into the scooter market. There is one thing that is constant with this new wave of vehicles and that is they are fun to ride. The panicked look on the face of the Segway rider is now replaced with the ear-to-ear grin of the eBike rider and that is what is remarkable.

It took a different path than expected but Dean Kamen's invention did change the world by inspiring the next generation of inventors. It's an exciting time for electric vehicles and we can't wait to see what's next!

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