Steve Jobs said it would be bigger than the PC. Some dubbed it the most hyped product since the Apple Macintosh. An era of secrecy bubbled up in the year 2000 about an invention that would change the world as people knew it. People speculated it was a hydrogen-powered hovercraft, or a device that would break the rules of gravity itself.
Dean Kamen presents the “Segway Human Transporter” in New York, December 3, 2001.
Instead, it was a two-wheeled, self-balancing personal transport device called the Segway. Created over the course of a decade by Dean Kamen, a man already made impossibly rich by inventing a key technology behind medical IVs in his basement, it was released in December 2001 for $5,000 (the cost of a low-end motorcycle, despite the fact that a Segway’s top speed was 10 mph). At the time, Kamen said it would be “to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.”
Now, less than 20 years after the first Segway’s release, Fast Company has learned that the Segway brand will retire the last Segway as we know it, the Segway PT. Manufacturing at the Bedford, New Hampshire, plant will stop July 15. A total of 21 employees will be laid off as a result, while 12 will stay on temporarily to handle various matters, including warranties and repairs on the Segways that have already been sold. Five employees working on Segway Discovery scooters will remain.
Segway’s inclusive origins
It’s a bitter end to a vision born out of inclusivity. After developing a wheelchair called the iBot that could both raise its user to eye height and drive up stairs, Kamen’s engineering team realized that the self-balancing gyroscopes inside could be repurposed to create a fun, zippy device for cruising on two feet. Kamen imagined it could be the ultimate urban transport vehicle between home and work. He flooded the media with appearances on the Segway, doing the late-night rounds with a technological bravado that Elon Musk echoes today. At the turn of the millennium, an era fueled by technological optimism, the Segway was an instantaneous icon that felt equal parts absurd and inevitable.
But the Segway never sold millions of units, or even hundreds of thousands of units. Kamen sold the company in 2009, which was sold again, to the Chinese mobility company Ninebot, in 2015. And while the Segway didn’t become the democratic urban mobility machine that Kamen had teased, it did find a foothold in security and tourism. Yes, Paul Blart: Mall Cop and those Segway tours you’ve seen in cities around the world really were the key components of Segway’s business.
Was the engineering too good?
Segway had originally planned to sell as many as 100,000 units in the first 13 months; the company only ever sold around 140,000 vehicles total. (By comparison, Honda sold nearly three times that many of its popular CRV crossover in 2019 alone.) Judy Cai, president of Segway, suggests that Segway’s engineering is partly to blame. The PT is engineered with several redundant systems to keep it operational even if some components fail—which is good for users, but not the bottom line of a company that needs to sell new units year after year.
“We tried analyzing, how come sales cannot go up quickly? One reason, I hate to say, is the quality of it, how durable it is,” Cai says. “I talk to customers riding [an old] unit. It doesn’t look good because it’s been on the road 12 years. It has 100,000 miles on it. But the machine itself runs very well. And so when you try to sell new units [to those customers] . . . unfortunately, it does hurt us.” Over the past three years, sales were flat on Segway PTs, dropping from 5% of Segway/Ninebot’s revenue to a mere 1.5%, Cai says.
The design didn’t evolve
Another big problem is that the novelty of the Segway never wore off (as it has for other mobility devices such as bikes and scooters). Over time, that became a barrier to entry. “On the form factor, one thing is that inherently you notice that it’s still a very novel way of transportation. Some people like it . . . but we still have people the first time they get on a Segway PT they have to learn to balance,” says Tony Ho, VP of global business development at Segway. “Kick scooters are taking off, and retroactively. There’s a reason the kick scooter is the dominant form factor now, precisely because it’s simple and easy to learn. There’s no learning curve.”ed
The Segway PT directly and indirectly led to all sorts of funky varieties of self-balancing vehicles, such as hoverboards and one-wheel skateboards. But the Segway PT itself didn’t evolve aggressively over the years to address its own UX challenges. The world got dozens of new iPods and iPhones since 2001, while the Segway never really changed.
Still, Segway’s legacy lives on, as the era of urban mobility that Kamen teased starts to take shape, with e-scooters and e-bikes taking over cities worldwide. Alongside Ninebot, Segway claims to command 70% of the global, shared e-scooter market, having provided the first scooters to Bird and Lime during the Great Scooter Wars of 2018. If your only goal is to cruise at 10 mph instead of walk, a scooter just does that job a lot cheaper than the Segway PT. “With what you pay for a scooter versus a Segway PT to accomplish what you want to do, you see the huge difference right there,” Cai says.
Segway’s core IP is still crucial to Ninebot’s growth; Segway has more than 1,000 active patents on self-balancing technologies alone, which are used in e-scooters, hoverboards, and other mobility devices the company has in the works. The company debuted the Segway S-Pod, a self-balancing chair for urban transport, at CES this year. It is also developing power sports products, such as electric ATVs and dirt bikes.
The name “Segway” won’t go away, either, even as the brand’s namesake product disappears. Segway has brand recognition in the United States and Europe, and Ninebot is recognizable across Asia; the two brands complement one another on a global scale. As for the New Hampshire facility, it will remain open with a skeleton crew for the time being, as all manufacturing is being handled in China. But could a future Segway device come off the line in this facility? “Nothing has been decided. We’re definitely not closing the facility,” Cai says. “How we utilize what we already have here in the U.S., that’s the next step of the discussion.”