It’s the end of the Segway era.
Production of the two-wheeled, self-balancing personal vehicle with handlebars will end July 15, and 21 employees will be laid off from the Bedford, N.H., plant that makes it, according to Fast Company.
It will end a disappointing run for what was, before its debut, one of the most anticipated gadgets of all time. Creator Dean Kamen and his team did a masterful job of building anticipation for the Segway, concealing what it was until the last possible moment. Leaks touting its potential to radically transform how people moved led to fevered speculation, including the theory that the Segway (code name: Ginger) was an antigravity device. Time described it at the time as the most hyped high-tech product since the Apple Macintosh.
Back then, Kamen predicted that the hype and his technology would make Segway the fastest company in history to reach $1 billion in sales. But it didn’t quite work out that way: According to Fast Company, only 140,000 Segways were ever sold.
The pitch for the vehicle was, in essence, that it would turn sidewalks into supplementary roadways, cutting automobile traffic and helping everyone move faster. But in practice, the Segway mostly found less transformative applications, particularly with tour groups, private security, and law enforcement.
Both the company and brand name behind the devices will carry on. Kamen sold Segway in 2009 after the device failed to reach stratospheric success, and it’s now owned by Chinese company Ninebot. Current Segway products include an array of electric scooters, hoverboards, and even self-balancing skates. Segway recently introduced the S-Pod, a self-balancing chair for use in theme parks, campuses, and other closed environments.
Still, there’s some irony to the original Segway ending its run at a time when the “micro-mobility” concept—scooters and bike rental services included—becomes an increasingly powerful force both in the technology industry and in city planning.
In 2020, bicycles and scooters have been deployed in vast numbers worldwide to help tackle the so-called last-mile problem of connecting commuting hubs to residences. Lime, a startup that provides rental bikes and electric scooters, was recently valued at $510 million despite serious economic headwinds. And given that enclosed public transit increases one’s risk of being exposed to the coronavirus, cycling and bike-sharing programs have seen a broad spike in use.
The Segway’s failure to get there first can be attributed to many factors. When it debuted, it cost $5,000—as much as a decent used car. Segway’s current president told Fast Company that the Segway was too durable, damping repeat sales. And it remained intimidating for many riders compared with bikes and scooters.
But that may not be the whole picture. A number of difficult, dangerous, and strange-looking transportation gadgets have followed in the Segway’s (gentle) wake. They include the Onewheel, a single-wheeled skateboard that has attracted a passionate following among extreme sports types and uses gyroscopic stabilization similar to the Segway’s. Even stranger are self-balancing electric unicycles—including one made by Segway.
Those aren’t necessarily going to replace your Honda, but they inspire passion in a way the original Segway never did.
“We’ve learned the micro-mobility space is about much more than just technology and functionality,” says Onewheel community lead Jack Mudd. “People choose micro-mobility products that connect them with the experiences they love and speak to the type of person they are and want to be.”
The Segway mostly failed to capture the sense of innovation and adventure that it initially promised and that may have made it more of a success. Instead it came to stand for terminal unhipness, best encapsulated by comedian Kevin James repeatedly falling off of one in the lowbrow comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop.
Still, you can’t dismiss the Segway’s influence, and its legacy isn’t going anywhere—Segway-Ninebot says its products make up 70% of the global shared e-scooter market. That might not be exactly the future Kamen got us excited about 20 years ago, but it’s still a future he and his strange little invention helped create.
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