On June 2020, 19 years after it was first revealed to the public, the Segway PT was officially discounted from production. This marked the long-awaited demise of one of the goofiest-looking vehicles ever created, but also, the predecessor to the modern electric kick scooter we all know and love today.
Announced in 2001, and launched a year later, the Segway PT, short for “Personal Transporter”, will be remembered as one of the most notorious innovations in the world of electric commuters. But what is now seen as an obvious failure and a futile attempt to re-innovate the wheel (quite literally too) has still left some big questions.
Like, for starters, what actually went wrong with Segway and why did its most hyped-up product fail so big?
Segway was an American brand that specialized in developing and manufacturing light electric vehicles for personal transportation. With their signature self-balancing technology, developed by Dean Kamen and patented by the brand in the 1990s, the company aimed to re-innovate the way people commuted around and replace all current modes of transportation, like cars and bikes, with new kinds of electric vehicles.
This self-balancing technology was the cornerstone of their first and most popular product – the Segway PT. Today, you might remember this vehicle from the hundreds of “fail compilations” that spread through the internet over the past two decades, or from that box office comedy hit about a mall cop whose loyal “partner” was the Segway Transporter itself.
But in 2001, the Segway was thought of as the vehicle of the future. Investors were promising they were onto something huge, something that could very well replace cars in the US. The giant PR campaign included a public TV introduction in front of millions of viewers on Good Morning America and tons of high praise from notable figures in the industry. Even Steve Jobs himself was quoted saying that the Segway “could be as big a deal as the PC”.
After such huge promises, the company’s initial target was to start off by selling around 50,000 to 100,000 units a year. After reaching only 10% of that goal in the following year, Segway’s failure started to seem inevitable.
At that point, all units sold were recalled by the company over a software issue that caused the vehicles to malfunction. This design flaw, coupled with the massive market underachievement and the overall bad press the product obtained, marked the beginning of the end of the Segway two-wheel commuter era.
Why did Segway fail?
So the big question here is, what was the main reason Segway failed? Was it the design flaw? The bad publicity? Was it simply too ahead of its time?
Or was it all piled up together?
High price tag
One of the main things people remember about the Segway today was that it was just too expensive. The product cost around $5000 upon release, and its price never got lowered as it never reached its forecasted profits.
This was probably the first thing the company got wrong. The main idea of the Segway PT was to replace cars and bikes as the primary form of transport for the average middle-class American, but it was too expensive for them to afford it.
On top of that, the vehicle could only be used by a single person with no additional load. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that not many people would pay so much money for something so restricting.
A bad reputation
Good PR is always welcome whenever something new is released, but Segway’s attempts at that misfired. After failing to deliver on the promises, the product suffered huge reputation damage and, as a result, the Internet got overflowed with videos of it failing. “Segway fails compilation” was the main search result you would get after Googling the product’s name.
It also didn’t help when the owner of the company himself, Jimi Heselden, died after falling off while riding the Segway transporter.
With a lot of effort, you can probably pull through a couple of videos of the president falling off your product, or it taking down the world’s number one athlete star, but the owner losing his life on his own product was the final publicity blow that Segway could never recover from.
Unsuitable for the modern lifestyle
The Segway PT was too slow and had a very low range for what it aspired to be.
The commuter could reach a top speed of 12.5 mph / 20 kmh, while a single battery charge could take you around for up to 24 mi / 39 km. In terms of e-vehicles in general, this is not a bad performance, but it’s very low for replacing cars as main daily transporters.
Additionally, the Segway often required well-developed infrastructure to function properly. It was made for rides on flat paved roads and clean tracks, avoiding off-road rides as much as possible. The problem lay in the fact that in the early 2000s, all cities were designed for slow-walking pedestrians or speeding cars, and the Segway PT was neither of those.
No target audience
A very important aspect of Segway’s failure was its lack of a target audience. The vehicle simply didn’t appeal to any specific group on the market, leaving it with no potential buyers even after a decade of its release.
It was too unconventional for the casual rider, too impractical for rides to work and back, and not as fun as skateboards and normal bikes for it to attract kids and adventurers. You couldn’t even take it on public transport or up to your office, so a lot of people just didn’t see the point of spending $5000 for it.
Besides the software error that signaled the first problems of the Segway PT, the vehicle had many minor design flaws that repelled any potential users away from it.
The self-balancing technology was very innovative, but hard to get the hang of. Even though it looked simple on paper, mastering the lean-to-ride mechanism turned out to be quite a daunting task. Riders needed weeks of practice to use the vehicle flawlessly, while often sustaining injuries from accidents of falling off their Segways.
It just wasn’t cool
All things considered, probably the biggest reason Segway failed was that it just wasn’t cool. Like, at all. The vehicle got the nickname “scooter for dorks” from the very start of its production, and it never managed to shake it off.
Getting released at the dawn of the internet era didn’t help as well, as the public simply piled up on the trend of making Segway the end of every joke. This general public’s dissent, combined with one of the most poorly mishandled PR campaigns in the e-vehicle industry, was a recipe for catastrophic failure from the get-go.
A lesson to be learned
Although the Segway PT will always be remembered as a big failure and a complete misreading of the market, it can still teach us a lot of things about our world.
Segway was a pioneer. A novelty that, besides its shortcomings, was the first mass-produced unit for personal transportation that worked solely on electricity. It was the trailblazer that truly redefined light electric vehicles and paved the road for one of the biggest market booms we’ve seen in the industry – the electric scooter craze.
The Segway, in fact, taught a lot of lessons about scooter design, market analysis, and PR campaign management. And many electric scooter brands today can be thankful to the company for stumbling on so many hurdles, making it easier to know what should be avoided in the future.