Smooth, Segway

How the much-ridiculed personal transportation device finally found a niche.

The Segway “human transporter”

Whatever happened to the revolution in personal transportation promised by the Segway?

In the eight years since the upright, self-balancing “personal transporter” first debuted, this question has become a perennial during speculative-future parlor games, on par with queries like “When will soccer finally supplant football in the hearts of Americans?”

The latest flicker of promise for the Segway came when fuel prices spiked to $4 a gallon in June 2008. The company, according to the Wall Street Journal,was reporting its highest-ever sales, while individual dealerships were notching 25 percent improvements in year-over-year sales—numbers that would make Detroit envious. Unfortunately, given that Segway Inc. has to date sold only a fraction of what even a struggling GM sells in a month (according the Journal, it had sold just 23,500—total—by September 2006), the sales boost is less impressive than it seems. And gas prices, of course, have since declined again.

That estimated sales figure seems especially paltry considering inventor and CEO Dean Kamen’s 2001 claim that “the impact of this in the twenty-first century will be just like what Henry Ford did at the beginning of the twentieth century.” The Segway, he proclaimed, would “change lives, cities, and ways of thinking.”

Despite these grandiose claims, or in fact because of them, the Segway is still hampered with something of an image problem. The Onion mercilessly skewered the Segway’s breathless hype in a “Do You Remember Life Before the Segway?” segment. (“It’s almost as if stuff did happen but wasn’t important,” one panelist opines.) Commentator Thomas Frank told the New York Times that the Segway has a “redolence of New Economy foolishness. It’s as though being a responsible adult is a burden of the working class,” while moneyed knowledge-workers “get to posture as special, exalted beings of wonder and innocence.” More recently, the Segway was forced to bear the full brunt of whatever humor was present in the transcendently bad (and not-paradoxically box-office-topping) film Paul Blart: Mall Cop, with the very sight of Kevin James astride (or falling off, or crashing) his conveyance played for laughs. (And while we’re on the subject of people falling off Segways, let’s not forget W.’s highly publicized header.)

The company’s own marketing materials seem designed to welcome a certain reflexive snark. “The second you step on,” reads one brochure, “five micro-machined gyroscopes and two accelerometers sense the changing terrain and your body position at 100 times per second—faster than your brain can think.” That’s right, the dusty old human brain, evolved over millions of years to handle without conscious thought things like proprioception and equilibrioception, even over the most uneven of city sidewalks—suddenly obsolete. Segway users refer to the experience as “gliding,” as if their two rubber wheels did nothing so sordid as to touch actual pavement          

Part of the Segway’s problem has been that, however impressive its technology, it was fulfilling an already-met need. There is nothing the Segway can do that that humble 19th-century technology, the bicycle, can’t—except, of course, not give its user cardiovascular exercise (and any bike can be easily equipped with an electric engine). Kamen has said that eliminating pedestrianism, Wall-Estyle, was not his goal; as the New Atlantis noted, “Segway is intended to fill the gap between pedestrian travel and car travel; its niche is for those trips that are inconveniently far to walk and annoyingly close to drive.” Reducing the shocking frequency with which Americans drive for trips of under a mile—the quart of gas for a quart of milk—is certainly a noble social goal; but again, a beat-up Trek on Craigslist does the same thing.

But perhaps the biggest question that has haunted the Segway is: Where exactly should this cutting-edge device be used? As Malcolm Gladwell noted recently,technological utopians often err in assuming “that their particular scientific revolution will wipe away all traces of its predecessors—that if you change the fuel you change the whole system.” But technology, even when it fulfils a need, requires distribution networks—in this case, things like roads and parking. Every new form of transportation carries with it a certain social tension. The arrival of the bicycle in late 19th-century American cities occasioned hand-wringing, and actual fights, about whether it belonged on the sidewalk, the street, or nowhere. The New York Times even decried bikes as “rubber-shod missiles of the highway.”

Currently, most states allow Segways on sidewalks and low-speed roads, although there are some municipal bans, as on San Francisco’s BART system. And yet in most places in the United States, space devoted to pedestrians and bicycles is dear, and so the presence of a Segway on a crowded sidewalk, moving outside the typical pedestrian velocity, is hardly welcomed. As for the street, cyclists have many decades of experience on how charitable car drivers are when it comes to sharing “their” road. One must also consider “modal bias,” the phenomenon by which people in one mode of travel tend to find it hard to relate to those in other modes (and vice versa). When you’re on a Segway, it no doubt seems the greatest thing in the world, something everyone should be doing—but that’s how drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, and everyone else also feels. (Attention roller-bladers: That jogger you just clipped with your widely swinging arms isn’t feeling your rush.)

And so instead of providing everyday transportation for the masses, the Segway has, for now, at least, been put to a number of niche uses. There is, for example, an accessory that turns the Segway into a golf cart, a use that hardly fits Kamen’s utopian ideal; whether the world needs golf carts is questionable, but whether the world needs a better golf cart is not really a question at all. Segways have also turned into a vehicle of choice for police, particularly in pedestrianized environments like parks and campuses, where they can cover more ground than on foot and, presumably, with less cost and psychological intimidation than mounted patrols. And, vis à vis Paul Blart, there are malls, of course; mall security company IPC, for example, boasts a fleet of 90 Segways at 40 locations. Their appeal was summarized by one security officer: “If you give me another eight inches in a crowded food court, I can see over anybody.” And then there are the now ubiquitous Segway tours found in cities across the globe, which help fulfill one of the iron laws of tourism: Thou shalt do things one would never do at home (eat tripe, smoke a water pipe, listen to French pop).

But perhaps the most useful, and unexpected, niche that the Segway has found is less as Web developer plaything than as transport for the disabled (including a group of disabled veterans). Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, since Kamen was also the inventor of the iBot, an expensive and groundbreaking wheelchair. But disabled Segway partisans speak of avoiding the social stigma of “the chair” and note that the Segway can traverse terrain that would be off-limits to traditional devices. And so perhaps the Segway is revolutionary, not for society as a whole but for an underserved segment. But even here, the traditional tensions of mobility arise. A lawsuit currently underway in the U.S. District Court in Orlando has disabled rights advocates seeking to gain legal access to Disney theme parks using Segways and not the four-wheeled “electronic standing devices” that Disney has proposed. Ironically, Disney itself offers Segway tours of EPCOT (its “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow”), and Celebration, Fla., the company’s neo-traditional town was once a “test market” for Segways. But the idea of Segways gliding among park patrons on foot is, it seems, just a bit too Tomorrowland.