It seemed like a good idea at the time: How the Segway fell to earth

By Mark Palmer Time of article published Jun 25, 2020

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London - They seemed such a good idea at the time. There you were, head and shoulders above everyone else, gliding effortlessly from one tourist attraction to the next in iconic cultural cities across the world.

No more pounding the pavements in Prague, no more hopping on and off crowded open-top buses in Rome, no more struggling to navigate Tokyo’s underground system.

Segways - the upright two-wheeled electric scooters with a platform to stand on while operating the controls - were the essence of personal transportation.

Not only were they an asset to tourists, but they would revolutionise the daily commute, while for police forces they represented a modern-day upgrade from the trusty bicycles of the Dixon of Dock Green era, albeit with sirens and strobe lighting. A "staple in security and law enforcement", as Segway’s US president, Judy Cai, put it.

There was one problem: no one wanted to buy them - at least not for around £5000 (R108 000), which is more than the cost of a used car.

In fact, almost ten years after Segways first went on sale, there were only about 80 000 in circulation around the world - leading Time magazine to label it one of the 50 worst inventions ever made.

And sure enough, this week the wheels finally came off, with Cai conceding that they represented less than 1.5 per cent of her company’s revenue last year - the rest largely comes from its e-bike range - and that production at its New Hampshire factory would cease on July 15, with more than 20 redundancies.

Of course, none of this should come as a huge surprise to anyone who has followed the fortunes of this once-innovative vehicle. It’s been a calamitous history of misfortune which would be funny if it weren’t so tragic, particularly when it comes to the Briton who bought the company in 2009.

Ten months after his acquisition, Jimi Heselden, a self-made millionaire, died when the Segway he was piloting careered off a 9 metre cliff and into a river near his country estate in West Yorkshire. He was 62.

A polite man, his accidental death was attributed to him trying to get out of the path of a group of hikers.

It was a grisly demise for the owner of a product that had once been touted as the ultimate gamechanger.

"I believe the Segway will do for walking what the calculator did for pad and pencil. Get there quicker. You’ll go further," said its inventor Dean Kamen, who launched his ‘personal transporter’ on Good Morning America in December 2001, with a price tag of around £4000.

File picture: Sue Ogrocki / AP Photo.

But even before its official launch, the Segway was cultivating something of a nerdy image, especially after it was lampooned in South Park, the satirical US cartoon, and was the butt of unflattering jokes for an entire episode.

But that didn’t deter Kamen, now 69, who was so taken by his creation that he nicknamed it  "Ginger" after Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire’s dance partner, whose poise and balance were legendary.

Hopes for the Segway were unrealistically high from the start.

At its inception, venture capitalist John Doerr - who backed Jeff Bezos before Amazon became a household name - predicted it would reach $1 billion (R17.3bn) in sales faster than any company in history, and that it could be "bigger than the internet".

No wonder Kamen expected to be selling 10 000 units a week by the end of 2002 - half a million in that first year alone.

But in the whole of the next six years, he shifted just 30 000 units, according to Forbes magazine. And that was after reportedly spending more than $100 million (R1.73bn) in research and development. Certainly, the technology was impressive. When the passenger stepped on the platform, the on-board computers, sensors and motors worked together to keep it upright. The idea is to balance as if you’re standing on the floor without setting the vehicle in motion. Then, as soon as you feel stable, move your body forward and, hey presto, you’re away.

Shift your weight back and backwards you go, while steering was simply a question of pushing the handlebar left or right.

It had three speed settings: 10km/h, 12.8km/h and 16km/h, and a recharge time of 4-6 hours. Later models, which could travel up to 38km on one charge, brought the speed up to just over 19km/h.

'Dead on arrival'

A book entitled Code Name Ginger, by Steve Kemper, was published to accompany the launch, and both Bezos and the late Steve Jobs, the genius behind Apple, were asked to comment on the Segway’s potential success. The author did not get the quotes he was expecting.

"I think this plan is dead on arrival," Bezos apparently responded, while Jobs warned that if a single rider fell off and hurt him or herself, then the entire reputation of Segway would crash with them.

And so it came to pass.

While he certainly wasn’t the first to tumble, 57-year-old President George W. Bush’s fall from a Segway in 2003 was probably the highest profile.

No big deal, perhaps, except that his fall, while on holiday at his Maine home, was caught on camera by the world’s Press photographers.

Picture: Supplied.

Countless celebrities - from chat show host Ellen DeGeneres to cricket commentator Ian Healy - have followed suit. But none was more public that the incident at the Athletics World Championships in 2015, when a cameraman riding a Segway ran over Usain Bolt as the greatest sprinter of all time did a victory lap after winning his 200-metre race in Beijing.

Bolt laughed it off, but it was no joke for the company, which was acquired later that year by Ninebot, its Chinese rival.

Another Segway casualty was Piers Morgan, the ITV breakfast show host and Mail Online columnist. He fell off one in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, in 2007, breaking three ribs and partially collapsing a lung.

"I’d only been on it five minutes and they were a lot more difficult to control than they looked - that’s my excuse anyway," says Morgan.

"My fall was captured on video by the friend who’d been riding on one behind me, and he kindly gave it to the world’s media to ensure global humiliation.

"My shame wasn’t helped by the fact I’d mocked George W. Bush for falling off his when I was editor of the Daily Mirror. I’m glad to see the back of the damn things."

Me, too, as it happens.

My one and only experience of these devices came in Prague about five years ago when I persuaded my wife that our trendy credentials might be enhanced if we were to take a Segway guided tour of the city rather than traipsing around on foot.

Big mistake. My wife took one look at her mount and said she was repairing to a cake shop, leaving me to join three Jack-the-lad students from California with baseball hats the wrong way round and our Czech female guide, to whom the boys had taken a fancy.

The Americans clearly had previous experience of Segways, most likely along the look-at-me Venice Beach walkway in LA.

Suddenly, they were off, leaving me to lean forward gingerly in the hope that I would start moving.

I may have been negotiating with something hotter than the internet, but it made me freeze. Balance had never been a strong point but, even so, I struggled.

And when I finally managed to catch up with my fellow tourists, I was so distracted by trying not to fall off that Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge and the Opera House passed me by in a blur of terror.

There was once talk of Segway polo, Segway golf buggies and Segway pizza deliveries, but that’s all come to nothing.

And given my experience, I’d say that’s probably for the best.

Daily Mail

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