The Segway Is Dead, Long Live The Segway

Before it was officially unveiled in December 2001, the hype surrounding the Segway Human Transporter was incredible. But it wasn’t because people were excited to get their hands on the product, they just wanted to know what the thing was. Cryptic claims from inventor Dean Kamen that “Ginger” would revolutionize transportation and urban planning lead to wild speculation. When somebody says their new creation will make existing automobiles look like horse-drawn carriages in comparison, it’s hard not to get excited.

Dean Kamen unveils the Segway

There were some pretty outlandish theories. Some believed that Kamen, a brilliant engineer and inventor by all accounts, had stumbled upon some kind of anti-gravity technology. The kids thought they would be zipping around on their own Back to the Future hover boards by Christmas, while Mom and Dad were wondering what the down payment on a floating minivan might be. Others thought the big secret was the discovery of teleportation, and that we were only a few years out from being able to “beam” ourselves around like Captain Kirk.

Even in hindsight, you really can’t blame them. Kamen had the sort of swagger and media presence that we today associate with Elon Musk. There was a general feeling that this charismatic maverick was about to do what the “Big Guys” couldn’t. Or even more tantalizing, what they wouldn’t do. After all, a technology which made the automobile obsolete would change the world. The very idea threatened a number of very big players, not least of which the incredibly powerful petroleum industry.

Of course, we all know what Dean Kamen actually showed off to the world that fateful day nearly 20 years ago. The two-wheeled scooter was admittedly an impressive piece of hardware, but it was hardly a threat to Detroit automakers. Even the horses were largely unconcerned, as you could buy an actual pony for less than what the Segway cost.

Now, with the announcement that Segway will stop production on their eponymous personal transporter in July, we can confidently say that history will look back on it as one of the most over-hyped pieces of technology ever created. But that’s not to say Kamen’s unique vehicle didn’t have an impact.

A Balancing Act

The core technology used in the Segway came from one of Kamen’s previous inventions: the iBOT electric wheelchair. Developed in the early 1990s, it was capable of a number of notable feats which were intended help those with limited mobility live more full and independent lives.

iBOT at the White House in 2000

The most practical of which was its ability to “climb” stairs utilizing two sets of powered wheels that could rotate around each other. The ride was a bit rough, but assuming the user had the strength to hold onto the railing, the iBOT would allow them to navigate a set of stairs on their own. If the occupant wasn’t strong enough, then a helper could stabilize the wheelchair as it trudged along. An elevator or ramp would still be easier, but now it wasn’t strictly required.

But the unique wheel arrangement was capable of other tricks. By rotating the wheels into a vertical orientation and raising the seat, the iBOT could elevate the user to approximate standing height. For those who believed they would have to live the rest of their lives sitting down, being able to look others into the eye could provide a huge boost to their self-esteem and overall morale. Utilizing onboard gyroscopes the iBOT was able to maintain its equilibrium with just two wheels on the ground, and could even drive in the “standing” position.

This self-balancing capability served as the basis for the hardware and software used in the Segway. Since the Human Transporter (which would later be renamed to the Personal Transporter) wasn’t a medical device, it wouldn’t be subject to the same kind of scrutiny and quality standards as the iBOT. This would let the company leverage their existing R&D to create a product that was not only more profitable to manufacture, but had a much larger potential user-base.

Failure to Launch

You couldn’t buy the sort of media hype that was generated around the Segway. Steve Jobs said the vehicle would ultimately be as important as the personal computer, and there was even an episode of South Park inspired by the mysterious transportation device. Naturally there were skeptics, but as they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

But when it finally hit the market in early 2002, the Segway failed to excite consumers. Undoubtedly, some of it was due to the disappointment of finding out this revolutionary new transportation device wasn’t a flying car, but an awkward looking scooter you couldn’t even sit down on. There was also a question of where owners would store the relatively large vehicle when not actively using it; if you drove a Segway to work, where would you leave it when you got there?

Of course, the biggest problem was the price. The first model of the Segway cost an incredible $5,000 (over $7,000 today). For that amount of money you could buy a decent used car, or a brand-new motorcycle if you were a bit more daring and wanted the open-air driving experience. The high sticker price was at odds with Kamen’s grandiose claims; how could the Segway revolutionize urban transportation when the average person couldn’t afford it? On paper, it would have been the perfect vehicle for teens without a drivers license or the elderly that didn’t need the extravagance of a full-sized car, but neither group was likely to have the cash to actually buy one.

To be sure, part of the problem was the technology available in the early 2000s. The Segway might have been a cost-optimized version of the iBOT, but the core hardware still didn’t come cheap. It’s easy to forget sometimes, but the incredible price reductions on rechargeable battery packs, powerful brushless motors, and fast microcontrollers have all been relatively recent events. It’s a classic example of an idea that was simply ahead of its time.

A Lasting Legacy

By the company’s own numbers, the Segway product line has sold less than 150,000 units in the 18 years they’ve been on sale. To put that into perspective, the company initially believed they’d be able to sell nearly that many in the first year. The average consumer simply wasn’t interested. The biggest customers ended up being security and police agencies, as it allowed officers to cover greater distances when on patrol.

While the Segway itself might never have enjoyed widespread commercial success, personal electric vehicles are today more popular than ever. The self-balancing “hoverboards” that have been on every tween’s Christmas list for the last several years are arguably a direct evolution of the Segway concept. More traditional electric scooters, which drop the balancing gimmick entirely, are similarly seeing a lot of interest. Especially when coupled with ridesharing technology that allows riders to rent them on demand.

In the end, there’s no question that some of Dean Kamen’s ideas are starting to change the way people get around in dense urban areas. Unfortunately for Segway, they just ended up doing it 20 years too late for them to make any money from it.

85 thoughts on “The Segway Is Dead, Long Live The Segway

  1. Impressive technology for the era, crazy costs for the value – still boycotted by the law in most countries (too quick for the sidewalk, too slow for the road, etc.). I still think it would be really useful today, for a price tag close to those e-scooter. It would be nice if someone like Musk will recover any patents.

    1. Any of the initial patents should be about done, or already expired if they filed them near when they founded. Might be why they are calling it, flood of clones in 5…4…3…

    2. ” still boycotted by the law in most countries ”

      This. That was why it failed. Had it been legal to use as intended, interest would have gone up, costs come down and more people would have bought it, but there was a wave of municipalities and countries that essentially outlawed it before it was even available for sale.

      1. +1 on this one!!

        Boycotted by the authorities!!.

        And why not. In Australia, as it might be the case of many other places, most government revenue comes from fuel excise/tax or taxes on cars or related to cars.
        Or revenue from fee paying public transport.

        If popular, it would have killed the goose laying golden eggs …

        I still remember how quickly the local Council banned them. Probably around 2002. As soon as the concept was understood. And the danger for revenue was visualized.

        Appalling.

        1. I don’t think it would have actually presented any competition to vehicles, since the range of a Segway is still pitiful compared to a bus or a car, and it takes so much lateral space on the streets that it can’t properly navigate among pedestrians.

          It’s just a fairly dangerous toy. A segway serves the same fundamental point as the electric kickbikes that we find littering our cities today, but it’s more prone to flipping you over by turning, and it doesn’t have proper brakes so you’re liable to run people over, or run yourself into traffic with it.

          1. >You’re gravely incorrect with your “toy” statement.

            The main downfall of the Segway is still the fact that it’s inherently unstable and has no real brakes. You can drive it safely IF you are careful and you’re practiced in its use, but when you let everyone have one, you simply get a ton of accidents. It’s a toy because on the grand scale of things it’s a poor solution to no problem.

            >It’s extremely small

            The original Segway wasn’t.

            > and can only go a messily 4 kmph

            And what does it do when you try to go faster? If it stops accelerating, you plant your face to the ground.

        2. Public transport is normally subsidized, the fees do not cover the cost. It con be more of a problem, that “greenies” always want to “educate” (force) the population to their ideas of living (see also the climate hysteria these days. Unfortunately we have the green party in the city government, they are quite extremist against cars and they really argued against the new e-scooters something like: “We want to ban them, because people do not use them instead of a car but instead of a bicycle or instead of walking.” That is an unacceptable amount of green dictatorship.

          1. Most of that funding is due to people wanting less traffic on the roads. The best way to eliminate traffic is to eliminate the desire to drive. It works out cheaper than trying to widen roads.

      2. For a very good reason.

        It was never really suitable “for the elderly and the young”, because teenagers would get themselves killed with it, and the old could not react fast enough to safely control it, and even for people in the middle, youtube is full of Segway accident videos. A Segway still requires constant attention and adjustment, since it can turn on a dime and throw you off by the slightest error, at speed, in traffic.

        Hoverboards and electric kickboards only added to the large number of fractures and head injuries caused by skateboards and roller skates.

    3. even e-bikes and e-scooters are absurd for the price.

      for the $500 to $1000 any halfway decent entry level scooter or E-board, i can this very second buy one of over a half dozen used cars.

      here’s a full working order Pontiac G5 for $900, or a mildly beat up kia for $750, or a real beater of a geo for $450.

      there’s no competition.

      the “value” isnt there yet even on ebikes and scooters.

      the Segway / ebikes /escooters still occupy a price niche on par with a golf cart.

      thats NOT the “world changer” still.

      you have to get into the masses, you have to beat a regular bike, if not in price then in VALUE.

      1. Cost of car = purchase price and insane costs to keep operating car described. Total = perpetual amounts of large that grow.

        Ebike over 5 years. Total = cost of bike and possibly a few hundred.

        Someone speaking to show ignorance = priceless

        1. Well, then let’s look at something closer to apples-apples: used motorcycles. They can also be found cheaper than e-bikes, and can be ridden anywhere cars can. Insurance cheap and not mandated in most places.

      2. You do have a point, but it’s not a fair comparison. Owning a bike means owning a helmet (if state law requires it). Owning a car means paying vehicle tax, having a drivers license, paying for fuel, paying for maintenance on that cheaper than a bike price, and etc. I could go on and on. It’s not a positive.

    1. I remember people buying into the Ginger hype, pronouncing on Usenet what they thought it was about.

      Then it was revealed, and nothing really all that great (though the steering mechanism seemed interesting).

    1. @Andrea Campanella said: “THey were way too expensive to be bought by private citizen.”

      I agree. The moment I saw the price, I new the Segway had no future. Greed kills another one. The thing I never understood is why the Chinese didn’t copy them for a fifth the price – or maybe they did but they still didn’t take off for other reasons, like painful face-plants.

      1. China *did* copy them for a fifth of the price. It just took 20 years to do. The Segway wasn’t expensive because they were adding a massive markup, it’s because that’s how much it cost to make it at the time!

  2. I once saw Dean Kamen speak at Georgia Tech (I think in 2017 or 2018) and he claimed that the Segway was produced as a way to drive down the cost of components for the iBOT. That may have been a rationalization after the fact, but clever if true. He also mentioned that his work with the Coca-Cola Freestyle came with an agreement to fund some clean drinking water machines for communities without clean water.

    1. Except Kamen has been involved with many projects to help the disabled and disadvantaged, not just the iBOT. It totally makes sense to take those technologies and make a cheap (-er) consumer device that can help advance the more philanthropic goals of his company.

  3. I can’t find first year sales figures, only the claim that a mere 6000 were sold by 2003, 2 years since launch, worldwide. Which makes Sinclair’s C5 selling 5000 in 6 months before receivership in basically only the UK market look like a runaway success when it’s usually held up as an example of big fail for alternative vehicles.

    1. I tried a C5 once. It suffered essentially the same problems – too fast for pavements, to vulnerable for roads – but doubly so with the low profile which affects any recumbent vehicle.

      The Renault twizy is the one I’d think has most chance – similar speed and height to a car, and more similar in protection level.

  4. I recall the backlash of many communities forbidding its use on sidewalks and in shopping malls.
    As it was large and heavy, it could injure pedestrians, as it was small and light it could injure its driver if it had to be used on public roads.

    I am surprised also that a couple of local, large (for this area) manufacturers did not buy a few for navigating their campuses.

    I am surprised with all the community restrictions placed on it, that those same communities “looked the other way” when the escoots hit their sidewalks.

    Just this past month, the escoots have appeared in a city near me (~100,000 population).
    After all the mess their worldwide deployment caused a couple of years ago, this deployment seems to be “civilized”.

    1. This seems to be the exact opposite of the history in my timeline.

      There were concerns about use on sidewalks, combined with statements about the fact they’re illegal on sidewalks.

      This was followed by local debate, and resulted in most communities writing new rules that legalized these devices on sidewalks. And in that process of rule update, they often also allowed for electric bicycles and scooters on sidewalks, and for new types of Personal Mobility Devices.

      1. There was not much problem in newer mostly western cities with wide and mostly empty sidewalks. Older cities that were more tightly packed with well used sidewalks didn’t have space for them.

    1. If you take the C5 as an example of what was possible 15 years earlier in range and speed of personal electric vehicles, it offered less, C5 on a 12V lead acid did up to 20 miles at 15mph, the original Segway HT did up to 10 miles at up to 10mph on NiMh…. and at least you could laboriously pedal the C5 home when the juice ran out.

    2. I coukd never see any advantage. They didn’t have speed, and for people with mobility issues, I would think for many, standing up constantly wasn’t viable.

      Other than cops, local use was by rental, in a limited area (because they weren’t allowed on the sidewalks). So people rented for the novelty, not practical use. Though one time one couole performing at our Fringe Festival appeared on them. Maybe they rented them, after the first day, I didn’t see the Segways again.

      I assumed cops liked them because it gave them a height advantage. Walming around all day shouldn’t wear you out, except your feet get tired, and I’m not sure standing on a Segway is an improvement.

      1. I’m worried about the mileage left on my knees and ankles, and I don’t think standing transportation; segway, hoverboard, standing scooter, or one of those more whacked out than segway treadmill things will work out when they’re getting really bad.

        1. “I’m worried about the mileage left on my knees and ankles,”

          YMMV, but the proper exercise can keep those knees, ankles, hips going through the years.
          Personally, I thought my knees, ankles, and hip joints were just about worn out, (years of jogging on hard surfaces) but I’ve since read articles that indicate that proper use/exercise is better than just writing them off as a loss.

    3. I am disabled and use a segway. It keeps me upright, at eye level, and is faster than a mobility scooter. It feels much more than walking or running than riding. Also I can carry a lot more cargo on it. I have literally carried 50 pound boxes on it from the post office (not for the novice).

      You have much greater control, and here in oregon I can drive in the street, bike lane, or sidewalk. It is far easer for long distance travel and is less distracting (at least for me). I am sad the price didn’t come down, but for me it gave me my independence back. Nothing yet compares for my needs

      1. I think Jock hit it on the head.

        Hack-a-day is all about niches – sometimes it’s just something you’re interested in and sometimes it’s a lot more.

        Any of us can look at something and say “That’d be cool for some specific niche and move on – if you’re *in* that niche, it can be a game changer.

        I can appreciate and am happy that it makes such a big impact for Jock – nice. Hope it, or some something like it, stays viable for those it’s a big deal for.

        1. Yeah, I’m sad for Jock as it sounds like it suits him perfectly, however, if as I mentioned above any patents are expired/expiring then hopefully some new less expensive machines will appear to keep you in transport in the coming years.

          1. Assuming the cheap now legal knock-offs can get the controls correct..Just because patents have expired and you can now build a clone doesn’t always follow that the cheap clone will actually work right.
            Soon as you move off an exact re-construction to make it cheaper you can end up chasing your tail trying to get the control loop right or it will just break when bumping over that tiny obsticle it shouldn’t have been bothered by.

            I do hope so too though, its a neat idea for quite a few niche area and if the range can be worked on might even become practical for more. Which is the possible upside to it being possible to market and sell your own versions – upgraded and improved versions (maybe even cheaper in the processes)!

          2. ” hopefully some new less expensive machines will appear to keep you in transport in the coming years.”

            So…
            Basically you are wondering if there will be a segue for the Segway.
            Got it!

        2. I am philosophical. I am an engineer I know the realities of products in the marketplace. I feel fortunate it has lasted as long as it did, and considering how little maintenance it has needed in the 13 years or so I have owned it I think it will last me a while yet. And fingers crossed there will be a good alternative when I have to move on… or I make one ;)

        3. Unfortunately, Dean Kamen (and a number of his backers) apparently failed to recognize the Segway as a niche product. It worked well for certain specific instances – people with limited mobility, security use, etc. But it was too expensive to be a toy for most people, and not viable as general purpose transportation. So he had a niche product with delusions of being a mass-market product.

    1. Even a hypothetical $1000 Segway would have to answer why it would use that form factor instead of using the electronics to power something like an electric bicycle or something with a more Vespa-like form factor, or something sporting three or four wheels.

  5. The biggest issue with the marketing was they implied it was something for *everyone*. And most people were disappointed when it was finally released because of cost, utility, or community restrictions, and found out they were not part of the *everyone* that was supposed to benefit from it. If they would have just been straightforward with the utility of it, they wouldn’t have had all the backlash that ultimately killed it from a PR perspective. I never got one (because of cost), but the technology at the time was something that was not seen before in the consumer space.

    Dean Kamen has come up with some great ideas, but he would have been better served if he stuck with the product development and left the PR and marketing to someone better trained. This really hurt his reputation.

    1. I suppose they could have sold more by pitching it as an exclusive, luxury item, then less wealthy customers might have scrimped and saved to get them. The “for everybody” thing was such mixed messaging because it made people think that huge cost reductions would come eventually to put it in “everybody” ‘s price bracket. So he probably had a few hundred thousand potential customers interested, but holding onto their slender wallets, then mucho pissed off three years later when there was no sign of price breaks materializing.

      1. Good point!
        Just think of all those articles about millionaires that don’t show their wealth, by driving regular cars, modest houses, plain clothes, and don’t buy the latest trend.
        It’s the wealthy wannabees that buy most of that crap.

  6. The Segway’s hype seems to have been one of the world’s worst cases of tunnel vision when it comes to benchmarking the competition. OK, so it has a lower price tag, less pollution, and lower cost per mile than a brand new car. The trouble is, Kamen’s comparisons appear to have stopped there. The obvious benchmark they should have considered for low speed, short range, environmentally friendly transportation would be the bicycle, but it doesn’t seem like they had thought it was a competitor.

  7. I forgot that the price went UP from the initial $5000. That was bad. If this was a matter of having to recover development costs, this was the wrong approach. They should have folded long ago, and created a new company that wasn’t burdened with debt. For the last few years, many other much-lower-priced options have become available, mainly due to the components developed for e-bikes. The current price for similar devices (single-person 1-2 wheeled electric vehicles in the under-20 MPH range) is about $1500, tops, and sticking with either inventory or technology that can’t make this target is not a viable plan. But I don’t know – maybe the company was kept alive just for the sake of the patents, and maybe Kamen has moved on to other things. Even the patents couldn’t be worth much today – multiple self balancing control system solutions are available at this point (can you say RC flight controller?).

  8. I’ll just leave this here. It is great fun! https://youtu.be/-EHLpfPw2vk I assume that Xiaomi now own all the IP.

    As for use cases, during the last two Olympics there were a lot of Segways and Mini Segways being used by TV camera operators. I still seem them on the news. The BBC had at least one in Trafalgar Square weekend before last. It looked like one of the originals.

    If they were easier to carry on public transport, I would love to have one, my old knees can’t get up hills anymore!

  9. I remember all the hype, and I remember the disappointment at the cost. But you know, all these years later I’ve never even seen one. The city I live in (around 35K population) never even got the urge to worry about allowing/not allowing use on the sidewalk. It never even came up, because NO ONE around here has one.

  10. Price is part of marketting. Edison said, ~ “I will create no more products, despite how much the world needs them, unless there us a ready market for them.” I wanted one and saw them at $3000. That buys a 150 mile range scooter. So – nope. Still see a few in ‘Frisco in the bike lane or on sidewalks, rented by tourists. Good for cops. Put them back on the beat. (Ok, historically, few were ever on a mythical beat. But, a good place for a higher percentage of then. I like what Minnesota’s trying to do.)

  11. It was a nice idea for the time. I think it never really took off because it’s pretty big, thus takes up space on sidewalks and requires some skill to not fall flat on your face the first times.
    If it looks unstable people will avoid trying it.
    This is why there aren’t Segway sharing companies, but there are thousands of electric kick scooter sharing companies. A percentage of people are scared even of trying scooters, and with those you can keep one foot on the ground while learning :)

    1. “This is why there aren’t Segway sharing companies”

      The self-balancing thing was nothing but a gimmick. There was already a two-wheeled electric stand-up vehicle that was inherently stable – the stand-up scooter. Took up really about the same amount of space, and was in every other aspect comparable to the Segway, except for the “cool” factor. This is what made them popular with tour companies, the ONLY market segment they got any traction at all in.

  12. “if you drove a Segway to work, where would you leave it when you got there?”

    If I recall correctly, it either came with some heavy-duty bag or the bag was available as an accessory. The idea was that when you got to work, you would take it apart, put it in the bag, walk to your desk with this bag slung over your shoulder, and store it under your desk (or something similar).

    Where I am, there’s a tour-guide place that has a small fleet of Segways to be able to cover more ground that a “walking tour”. I suspect they’d be in more use, but the metro downtown area prohibits wheels (eg: bicycles, scooters, skateboards, etc) on sidewalks (except for wheelchairs).

    1. The town and surrounding area in Georgia where “The Walking Dead” is produced has some walking tours of the sets and other places. Does that make it The Walking The Walking Dead Tour or is it The Walking Dead Walking Tour?

      Now add Segways to that…

  13. It was Kamen’s baby, so it’s not unusual for someone in his position having fantastical claims about the impact their product will have. But that doesn’t stop me from being annoyed by the frequency of these types of things and by how far inventors/developers can stick their heads up their own ass.

  14. So the Segway is a museum piece. I wonder how many museums will be unable to display one because museums out number the number of Segways sold? Practically every county in the USA, has at lesat one museum.

  15. Traditional vehicles and even horse riding have something in common: You can sit during your travel. All this things like segway, e-scooter, etc. have something in common with crowded public transport: You have to stand. Why should I want that?

    1. Really depends on distance, convenience. eScooter are easier to transport and smaller than bikes, less tiring than non-battery bikes and in some cities you can take your scooter in the bus or tramway.

      Imagine that the bus stops are a few km away from home and from your work.
      Imagine that you live in an apartment and nowhere to park a bike.

  16. The problem wasn’t that it was too expensive, it was that the design team couldn’t leave behind their medical device origins. The Segway was fully redundant – two motors, two gearboxes, two batteries, two inertial measurement systems, two handlebar controllers – everything. The device could survive any single point failure while travelling at max speed down a steep hill with an empty battery and still bring itself to a safe halt (or at least, that was the design mentality). The original tires were Michelins (!) and cost Segway $100 per pair! The refusal of the design team to compromise drove the price higher and higher and nobody cared because they were so invested in this notion of an “industry disrupting” device. The assumption was that individuals wouldn’t purchase the Segway – it would be municipalities who would then lease / rent them to end users. With that rationale the initial price wasn’t as important as robustness and safety. Obviously their gamble failed.

    I worked with two of the guys who wrote the embedded software for the first gen Segway. Boy do they have some stories…

    1. Of course you need two motors and gearboxes for this kind of vehicle. Single point fail safety is also important. This is also a requirement for automotive electronics – and in an automobile you have some protection by the sheet metal around you – not so on a Segway.

  17. Segueing into semantics for a moment. “THE SEGWAY IS DEAD, LONG LIVE THE SEGWAY” is a contradiction. The expression is meant to indicate that the latter is the rightful successor to the former. The Segway scooter is not a successor to itself, as it is dead.The Segway company cannot be a successor to itself, because it is not dead (pretty close though).

  18. I remember the hype pre-reveal. The profound WTF on the reveal thankfully requires more than I’m willing to type on this tiny screen. Just possibly the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen starts to describe it, but still fall short.

  19. I got a charge out of the story about the new owner of Segway riding one of those silly assed POS’s right over a cliff in his backyard and plummeting to his death.

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