The vertical scooter-like vehicle of Segway, the Personal Transporter (PT), takes little space and moves smoothly. Segway’s PT, created by Dean Kamen, introduced an innovative and inspiring product concept in its technology and form, easily recognizable on sight. There is something elegant about the way it looks and moves. Yet, the PT never fulfilled the high expectations from it as a popular mode of personal transportation, and in sales it would generate. It had a sticking problem: riders were having difficulty to handle it properly; many others were wary when observing the marvelous miracle in motion, and did not buy-in. After a history of nearly twenty years, full of turns, the president of Segway announced it would stop production of the Personal Transporter in mid-July 2020 (NYTimes.com, 24 June 2020).
The PT has an unusual form, different in particular from the kind of scooter we are more familiar with in the past few years (which is really not new). The platform of the PT is small, enough for holding a person with his/her legs standing to each other’s side when looking up front. The Segway PT is built on a unique balancing mechanism (gyroscopic) that adapts to the position of its rider to adjust the speed of the electric vehicle, and to halt its motion when necessary. The PT responds to the degree at which the rider’s body is leaning against the steering poll, forward or backward. The rider has to stand straight on top of the platform and the vehicle will keep the rider upright. A handlebar can be pushed left or right for turning. The difficulty is in keeping within a safe position-angle in order not to fall off the Segway PT.
The more typical, familiar scooter has an elongated narrow platform, with a steering poll rising in front of it. On this kind of scooter the rider has to stand with his/her legs positioned one behind the other. Those who were growing up as children in the 1960s-1970s might remember riding a scooter of this form; when riding it, one had to take a leg off the platform once in a while to give it a push forward against the ground. Such an effort is not needed with the modern electric scooter (except maybe for giving its motion a start). Both the scooter now popular and the PT ‘scooter’ are electric, and that might be the source of a problem with these kinds of personal vehicles — they are suitable for riding short distances with little physical effort but at a personal hazard of accidents due to speeding and losing balance. The PT has a sophisticated balancing mechanism but riders seem to have often misunderstood how to apply it correctly. Riders of the current electric scooter tend to misjudge the capabilities of the scooter and their own to keep their balance while they are speeding and manoeuvring.
Personal accidents when riding the PT were most often related directly to wrong body gestures and losing control of the PT vehicle. Some of those accidents can be bad, such as when riders were falling on their backs. In an especially tragic accident a previous British owner of the company, James Heselden, was killed on his PT by falling off a cliff. Accidents on PTs as well as on other electric scooters generally end up causing bruises, broken bones (usually limbs), and more serious head injuries. Riding on the contemporary electric scooters is not immune from accidents although the reasons may differ from PT accidents (e.g., running into large objects from cars to street furniture, missing sight of road obstacles).
Safety was a critical issue entailed with riding the PT. However, the Segway raised some other issues, less critical yet disturbing. For instance, the Segway PT is heavy and cumbersome to carry and store or park. The PT of Segway may have also suffered from a social stigma — its users were perceived as lazy (Jordan Golson, Wired.com, 16 January 2015). The PT was expected to sell 10,000 units a week by the end of its first year, 2002, a million a year; that expectation of Kamen was not reached, and in the next six years Segway sold 30,000 PT ‘scooters’ (the price tag of $5,000 was likely another impediment to adoption).
Therefore, the Segway PT did not catch among consumers — it can be surmised that the product was revolutionary but awkward to use. But the Personal Transporter found more success in public service and business applications. Roger Brown, who followed Heselden as owner and CEO of the company, managed to revive Segway and its PT by promoting the usefulness and efficiency of riding the PT in performing various tasks or activities — These are some notable applications patrols of police officers or security guards (e.g., at events, in malls), medical teams providing first aid, personnel working in large plants or warehouses (logistics tasks), guided tours in cities or in nature parks (for further illustration, see for instance the Swiss website of Segway).
In 2015 Segway merged with China-based Ninebot, a company specialising in robotics (so formally stated in the timeline of Segway, UK, ‘About the Brand’); according to business news reports, actually it was acquired by Ninebot from Brown and is practically under its control. (Brown bought Segway from Heselden’s estate in 2013 at the value of $9 million and sold his shares to Ninebot for $75m just two years later in 2015 after putting it back on track.) Ninebot was already working on its version of a scooter, E+, which it first introduced in 2014. Segway-Ninebot continued developing together the electric scooter, and in 2017 launched the line of KickScooter with models ES1 and ES2.
The electric scooter became a huge success when made available for hire in a sharing service (e.g., Bird, Lime); the models of Segway-Ninebot contributed to make this business model of service possible. Brown commented on this development: “If I would’ve had the vision of Bird or Lime, Segway would’ve been worth $10 billion” (Matt McFarland, CNN.com, 30 October 2018). Renting the Segway PT to riders for short-term as a service could have well improved its fortune, but it would have not necessarily been able to overcome the hurdles consumers had in operating the PT safely. Additionally, the PT started its life course a number of years before consumers accepted sharing and adopted it as a common practice — timing of market entry can indeed be crucial.
The Personal Transporter of Segway presented an ingenuine product solution to let people travel short-distances in greater freedom and with little effort. But using the PT vehicle was not experienced and perceived by consumers-riders as simple and easy as intended. In the worse cases riders got hurt, making lack of safety a critical issue. The PT could still serve, however, positive purposes in performing operational tasks by trained users-riders at work. The concept of personal transportation may have needed to wait for a different kind of vehicle with another business model of service (sharing). Yet the electric scooters widely hired and used these days are not quite free of the problems associated with the PT vehicle (unsafe, avoiding physical practice, heavy and painful when tackling it, and scooters are parked on pedestrian pathways); they may not really provide the better personal transportation solution we are waiting for.