When first revealed to the world back in December of 2001 Dean Kamen’s Segway promised to revolutionise urban mobility. But sticker shock, and cities quickly banning the self-balancing standing scooter, meant the Segway never came to close to realising that dream. Nineteen years later, on July 15, the original Segway will officially roll off into the sunset.
There was never any doubt that the technology powering the Segway was revolutionary. Using sensors and intelligent electric motors it performed the seemingly impossible task of staying upright on a pair of side-by-side wheels and balancing on behalf of the rider who only had to make subtle leaning motions to accelerate or decelerate the scooter. Riding one around required just a few minutes of training, which made the personal transport a popular alternative to bikes for tourists, or mall cops on patrol. But the Segway PT (the Personal Transporter version which featured the upright handlebars) never really caught on with the general consumer, unless they were billionaires living in Silicon Valley looking for a novel way to play Polo.
Dean Kamen, its creator, eventually sold Segway to a Beijing-based robotics startup called Ninebot back in 2015, who has continued to create and sell self-balancing ride-ons under the Segway brand, as well as scooters and other electric-powered car alternatives for getting around a crowded city where streets are often jammed with traffic. At CES 2020 the company revealed its latest creation using the self-balancing tech; a two-wheeled stroller for adults that allowed riders to sit in comfort while getting around.
But what Ninebot hasn’t been promoting in recent years is the original Segway Personal Transporter design, which, according to the company, accounted for just 1.5% of its revenue last year. The company’s more affordable consumer-targeted vehicles like scooters and hoverboards are its real bread and butter, and as a result, Ninebot has decided to retire the Segway PT, as well as the Segway SE-3 Patroller (a larger three-wheeled version often used by security in airports), and the Segway Robotics Mobility Platform (RMP).
The decision also results in 21 people being laid off from the company’s Bedford, New Hampshire plant, and it marks the end of one of the more ambitious and promising approaches to finally replacing gas-guzzling cars crowding big cities. Yes, the two-wheeled vehicle was endlessly mocked and it was hard to look cool scooting around the city on one with its cartoonish over-sized wheels and lots of people crashed while riding them. Had Segway managed to get them in the hands of consumers for the price of a nice bike, and not the price of a small car, it may have actually had a chance decades ago. But at least the technology will live on in other Ninebot products moving forward.