Before the Great Scooter Wars of 2018 that introduced electric scooters to the public, there was a self-balancing transporter that paved the way for portable electric vehicles – the Segway PT. Segway officially stops the production of the transporter today due to a lack of sales.
The Segway Personal Transporter was borne out of inclusivity and genuine intent of providing a durable electric vehicle. Yet in the past three years, it contributed 5% to less than 1.5% of Ninebot’s revenue.
At the turn of the millennium, multi-millionaire inventor Dean Kamen was believed to have a secret proposal for a book that mentions a device called “It”. Steve Jobs reportedly said “It” could be as significant as the development of the personal computer. The book was never written and excerpts of the proposal disappeared, but this was enough to create a wave of speculations back in 2001.
By the end of the year, inventor Dean Kamen revealed the Segway Personal Transporter (originally named Human Transporter). It’s a two-wheeled self-balancing vehicle that Kamen claims would be “to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy”.
It was a 100-pound awkward thing that made you look lazy. It invited ridicule and was quickly ruined by one rider falling off and hurting himself.
Nonetheless, it had something new – self-balancing gyroscopes. Kamen’s engineering team realized that this technology, first used in their iBot, could be repurposed to create a fun device that could cruise on two feet.
Kamen, forever known as “The Segway Guy” made several media appearances with the Segway PT. He proudly proclaimed it as the ultimate urban transport vehicle.
Overestimating Demand and an Unfortunate Series of Events
Aside from the steep learning curve, the Segway PT has a top speed of 16 km/h but costs the same as a low-end motorcycle. Segway planned to sell 100,000 units in its first year. The company sold 140,000 vehicles in total.
Kamen sold the company to British entrepreneur James Heselden in 2009. In a morbidly hilarious twist of fate, he died riding a Segway in 2010 by accidentally steering it off a cliff and into a river. His untimely death cemented Segway’s reputation as an unwieldy contraption. The device of the future became a meme.
The Novelty Faded
The company was sold again to the Chinese mobility company Ninebot in 2015. In spite of Heselden’s death, Segway found its footing in the security and tourism sector.
Segway was able to survive its infamous reputation in popular culture for a time. The Personal Transporter was used by security guards (hence Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Mall Cop 2) and tourists around the world. Outside of this, however, the flagship device failed to attract consumers.
The Segway PT has a novel idea that’s also the same reason why people didn’t buy it. Ultimately, it was silly, heavy, expensive, and difficult to use. The vehicle’s design didn’t change to address these problems. Ironically, the company found it difficult to sell more units because it’s too durable.
Segway, under Ninebot, tried again with Segway MiniPro in 2016. It’s basically the same concept but smaller and hands-free. You steered it with your knees. It has positive reviews but it’s more of a tech gadget than a transport vehicle.
Two years later two ridesharing companies used the latest iteration of another transportation solution. Electric scooters, offering more range and speed, now fulfill what Dean Kamen envisioned for the Segway PT eight years ago.
Not Gone for Good
The Segway PT still managed to last around twenty years before it’s finally discontinued. The vehicle’s ideas inspired new self-balancing variants – hoverboards and monowheels. Segway too won’t exactly go away. The brand’s IP has over 1,000 active patents on self-balancing technologies and other mobility devices that Ninebot is still developing.
The Segway PT is a classic story of a new idea that failed to take off and became a stepping stone for better ideas. The rise and fall of this infamously iconic vehicle teach us that for a technology to last, novelty is not enough.