The demise of the Segway is “straight-up ironic” given the increasing public desire for personal transport and “micro mobility,” according to journalist Mark Wilson.
“We had the mobility device of the future, we have the moment that it should be taking off — and it did not,” said Wilson, a senior writer with business magazine Fast Company.
“But, you know, sometimes, I guess, people just get it wrong,” he told The Current’s guest host Nahlah Ayed.
Chinese company Segway Ninebot, which bought the original U.S. company in 2015, announced last month that the final Segways would roll off the production line on July 15. Invented by Dean Kamen, the personal transporters had a much-hyped launch in 2000, but sold only 140,000 units over two decades.
The device allows standing riders to move at speeds of about 16 km/h, leaning in the direction they want to steer. They have proven popular for tourists exploring cities and security personnel covering large areas — but also became known for high-profile crashes over the years.
Wilson said the launch of the Segway coincided with a sense of “techno optimism” around the new millennium.
“We really believed in, I think, technology as this tool to rescue us, to make the world better,” he told Ayed.
Twenty years later, he said we can see the mistakes that were made along the way, such as “targeted advertising, tracking our location.”
“Along those lines, there was this blip called the Segway, this little transporter that was supposed to replace walking,” he said.
“And 20 years later, no, we all still walk.”
But Kamen was right about one thing: small, self-balancing, sometimes electrical mobility devices “were going to be a big deal in urban transport,” as people grappled with “the last mile problem,” Wilson said.
“What I think Dean Kamen saw early on was cities were only getting bigger, they were only getting more congested, and we really needed some sort of device for that last mile — to get to work, maybe even to get from the subway to work,” he said.
“Right now, you look at bike shares, you look at electric scooters instead of Segways, and these are really huge markets.”
Pandemic driving interest in micro mobility
Brent Toderian, an urbanist and former chief planner for Vancouver, thinks “the pandemic has given us opportunities to rethink how we get around safely in a lot of ways,” as people try to find alternatives to sharing confined space on public transport.
“It’s been particularly good for walking and simple biking, and e-biking is just an extension of human-powered biking, as are scooters,” he told The Current.
That’s leading to a boom in micro mobility, which Toderian defined as moving away from relying on cars and finding “more ways to get around that are small that we can carry with us, like foldable bikes.”
But he warned that there is a risk in just viewing micro mobility as the only solution to building healthier urban spaces.
“The concept of a more multimodal city — a city that has many more enjoyable, healthy, sustainable, economical, equitable ways of getting around — is going to be a lot of solutions,” he said.
“Micro mobility … is part of a larger conversation about more and better ways to get around that aren’t as space intensive, pollution intensive, etc., as cars are.”
He said it’s important to note what micro mobility trips replace.
“If they replace car trips, that’s a good thing. If they replace walking trips, then we’ve actually used electricity and lost an opportunity to have some exercise in our lives,” he said.
“And that’s a bad trade for our cities and for us, individually.”
Design and cost stalled Segway sales
Wilson thinks part of the reason Segways failed was their design, and the obstacle of learning how to ride them.
“It was framed as intuitive, but you still actually have to step on there and … jump over that sort of scary hurdle of: ‘Am I going to flip on my back and bump my head open?'” he said.
By contrast, the same technology can be placed in a scooter, and “everyone knows how to ride a scooter,” he said.
A bigger issue, however, was the price — with a basic model costing $5,000 US when it first launched.
“You could buy a motorcycle for that much, that could take you across the country, be relatively small, be a whole lot faster,” he said.
Segways also became known for high-profile crashes, including the death of British millionaire Jim Heselden, who bought the company in 2009. That same year, the 62-year-old died when the Segway he was riding went over a cliff near his home north of London.
In 2015, a Segway-riding cameraman ran over Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt after the athlete won a 200-metre race in Beijing. Neither were injured.
Was Segway ahead of its time?
Wilson said parent company Segway Ninebot has already moved into the e-scooter market, utilizing hundreds of the patents that originated in the design and construction of the original Segway.
At the tech trade show CES last month, the company also debuted the S-Pod, an electric chair on wheels that the company hopes to launch this year to ferry people around airports and possibly even city streets.
Wilson thinks the original Segway was definitely ahead of its time, “but that doesn’t mean it was right.”
“I do think if it were simply ahead of its time and the design were around today that we would have seen some sort of uptick in Segway sales,” he said.
“The fact that we didn’t mean I think there were other issues.”
Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Peter Mitton.