Segways Are (Sort Of) Back!

2001. It’s the year that decades past looked to as “the future!”

And here it was. I remember It. And I say It, because that’s what It was called.

December 3, 2001, Dean Kamen, serial inventor, looks back at me through the mini CRT TV in my parents’ bedroom. (The one that combined with a VCR. Yes, it truly was the future.) I’m getting ready for another day of high school, but as this morning promises to be the reveal of the biggest invention of my lifetime, I postpone my morning doings with a stopover — Good Morning America waits for no one.

It was given life that morning, and a name: The Segway. The future was born.

What is a Segway? Well, my bibliophilic mind knew this (misspelled) word to mean a transition of sorts, sans interruption.

Is this Segway truly our uninterrupted transition into the future?

It was poised for success: A glorious feat of engineering design. Functional. Fun. Able to solve cities’ mobility demands. But, well…

It was weird. It looked weird. Who was going to ride these things? Well, maybe, I thought, maybe it’ll take off, just like bikes and cars, and cell phones, and all the things we eventually get used to that start out “looking weird.”

But it didn’t. Over course of the next almost two decades, I saw the following people using them:

  • Helmet (and sometimes reflective vest) donning tourists
  • Police officers
  • A couple of math professors at my alma mater
  • Kevin James

That was it. I didn’t see swarms of happy consumers taking their new primo toys to the streets. I didn’t see people abandoning bicycles (or cars) for the newest mode of simple and sleek transportation. It would seem that this whole idea of standing on a platform powered by self-propelling wheels was a non-starter.

But then, this month, it wasn’t. Portland’s bike lanes started to overflow with people gripping the handles of their two-wheelers as they glided towards their destinations. The curbs are peppered with them. They, all of the sudden, are cool and prolific.

The rub? They aren’t It. They are electric scooters, not Segways. Not the future — actually, they’re more like the past. They resemble the kick scooter you can find in your grandma’s basement.

What happened? Why did a relic from the past (plus batteries) win the street fight for the future?

  1. Accessibility. The original Segway came in at around $5,000. In 2001, you could easily buy a used Dodge Caravan for that. You get double the wheels, seven times the seats, and a lot more speed for that price. Immediately, the Segway was a luxury good. On the other hand, electric scooters here in Portland are for rent, thanks to a handful of startups to whom the city has granted licenses. Price tag? $1 to start, and $0.15/minute. For that, you would have to rent an electric scooter 1,250 times for 20 minute durations before the Segway becomes more cost efficient. And if you wanted to buy instead of rent a scooter? The price ranges from around $100-$1000 depending on the bells and whistles you want (sometimes literally).
  2. Looks. I said it before. The Segway looks weird. You just can’t look cool on it. Most people grip (at least initially) white-knuckled to the handles, and, despite the gyroscopic wizardry keeping the Segway perpetually upright, look unbalanced. What’s more, with the hefty price tag, Segwayers immediately present as part of the haut monde, and not in a good way. If one reaches comfort and ease on the Segway, the hoitiness of it all is inescapable. Electric scooters are just the old familiar kick scooter with a bit more power. Nothing to see here.
  3. Targeting. This incorporates #1 and #2, but in fact is the biggest issue. Who was the target customer? The most high-end consumers who could initially afford it, probably didn’t need it. They could afford to drive their luxury vehicles into the underground parking of their corporate offices. They didn’t need to stand in the open air with the plebeians to commute.

Ok, so forget the highest of the high end. What about the edge consumer? There was a fraction of those who could afford it, but why would they want it? It seemed frivolous and flashy (and perhaps, a touch dorky). The social risk proved costlier than even the price.

And then, there’s the rest — the folks that couldn’t afford it. Maybe they needed it the most, but the gap between the willingness to pay and the price was too far. Especially to own. Renting could have opened the door, but wasn’t an option. The model was wrong: the future, in fact, was an aversion to ownership. For this product to be the future, it needed to attract the future, and the purchase-only model was a fatal attribute.

Image courtesy of Skip Scooters

And while those three things killed the consumer-viability of Segway, they are precisely why the rentable electric scooters are being swept up in available cities. Here’s the thing: For a layperson (like me) a Segway and an electric scooter are basically the same thing. I stand on them. I grip their handles. I direct movement and control speed. They move with little personal effort. They reduce the impact of obstacles (such as traffic or physical exertion) in my getting from A to B. It’s just that one is more accessible, looks cooler, and requires no commitment to use.

Cities are still navigating how to respond to and regulate the rent-a-scoot market, but for now, I’m enjoying the freewheeling (rentwheeling) craze. Sometimes, the future looks a lot more like the past than we expected.