Design lessons from the grim fate of the Segway

 1 year ago
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Design lessons from the grim fate of the Segway

The Segway failed because it solved no actual problems. Electric scooters and e-bikes are thriving because they do.

“man on segway” by patrick thibodeau

Why did the Segway never take off?

Over at Slate, Dan Kois ponders this question in a rollicking essay about the benighted two-wheel device. Kois had a remarkable front-row seat to the introduction of the Segway in 2001, because he was, as he notes, heavily responsible for the crazy explosion of pre-release hype. He was a young book agent, and one of his authors had gotten exclusive access to Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway. The book proposal quoted Steve Jobs saying that Kamen’s invention would be “as significant as the personal computer,” and Jeff Bezos calling it “revolutionary”.

But Kamen was wildly secretive about the Segway. So the book proposal literally couldn’t even mention was the device was. And this, as Kois points out, was part of what created so much hype around the Segway. When the book proposal went out to the publishers, the mystery about “It” produced frothy buzz, and the book sold for a hefty $250,000. The proposal was quickly leaked to the media, and then to the gestational extremely-online crowd of the early 00s … and soon there were magazine pieces, news hits, TV segments and discussion boards feverishly wondering, what the hell was this thing?

“That’s it? That can’t be it.” Diane Sawyer beholds the Segway on Good Morning America

This, Kois argues, helped killed the Segway. Sure, the device had many, many problems, as he points out. It was, at $5,000, wildly expensive. It made you look dorky. But Kois suspects that another fatal blow was that the soaring hype made the actual invention seem like a crushing let-down. (“That’s it?” asked a baffled Diane Sawyer, when Kamen unveiled the device for “Good Morning America”. “That can’t be it.”)

“Was it my fault?” Kois wonders. If he hadn’t created that overoxygenated hype cycle, maybe the Segway would have done just fine. Maybe it’d have slowly found its user base, and not been remorselessly parodied on South Park and Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Me, I don’t think Kois needs to blame himself. The hype cycle didn’t help, obviously. (In business, you’re supposed to underpromise and overdeliver.) But in the final paragraphs of this piece, Kois notes that there are a lot of Segway-like vehicles on the road these days — including a ton of electric stand-up scooters and electric bikes. And they’re selling like hotcakes.


This is a great observation, and one that turns out to be really useful to explore. What problems did the Segway have — that ebikes and escooters don’t have? What did Dean Kamen do wrong that the creators of escooters and ebikes did right?

I have thoughts on this! As I pondered this comparison, I realized it contains some interesting lessons about how to invent something useful — and how to invent something that’s useless.

So, forthwith, Three Reasons the Segway Died, While E-Bike and E-Scooters Thrived:

1) The Segway didn’t solve a problem

Kamen was convinced the Segway would change everything, because, as he put it: “Who’s gonna wanna walk?” This was a hilariously common belief amongst Segway true-believers. They predicted that people would use it everywhere. Steve Jobs predicted cities would be designed around the Segway For these tech guys, walking was a problem that needed to be solved.

Segways, via Wikimedia

Except walking is not a problem that needs to be solved. It works really well for very many people! And cities, well, they’ve already unfortunately been designed around cars; they were not gonna be redesigned again.

Yet this is where things get interesting. Because cities have been designed around cars, they suffer from the “last mile problem”: We frequently have to travel distances that are too short for a car but too long for a walk. This is precisely where a portable e-scooter, which you can pick up and carry into your destination, shines.

E-scooters thus solve a real problem that actually exists. As do e-bikes: They make hills manageable, opening up far more rides for people who otherwise would never cycle them. And neither e-scooters nor e-bikes need complicated, high-tech self-balancing technology. They already have a mechanism for self-balancing: The rider.

Segway’s self-balancing tech only truly made sense for the cohort of people who have mobility issues. Kamen originally developed it for wheelchairs that can navigate stairs and stand upright, a much more innovative and genuinely useful concept.

2) The Segway was over-engineered

If you create all that cutting-edge Segway balancing gear, you wind up with something so expensive it breaks the market. (The Segway had two separate motors and battery packs, for redundancy.) Moonshots are cool! But they come with moonshot expenses and moonshot unaffordability, as NASA discovered in the 1960s.

Image from Segway patent “Control of a personal transporter based on user position”

An e-scooter or an e-bike, in contrast, requires the bare minimum of innovation necessary to create something usefully new. Their creators didn’t need to invent an entire new category of transportation. They just took something that already existed — and already worked very well — then added a new feature: An electric motor and battery. That’s a lot less expensive than inventing a $5,000 genre-defying gewgaw. But in the world of engineering, tweaking and iterating very often produce results better than swinging for the fences. Plus, you wind up with devices that already fit into the existing world; e-scooters and e-bikes benefit from regular bike-racks, bike-lanes, and many repair shops.

I’m not suggesting wild strokes of innovation are never a good idea! But a huge amount of what we think of as bold “innovation” is really just carefully plodding iteration. Facebook was just a database + social connection. Instagram was just a database + photos. Tiktok is just a database + short video. (News flash: Most Silicon Valley products are just … databases.)

And as for the real market of people with mobility challenges, it’s worth noting that many seniors gravitated to a rugged, well-designed product that already exists: The golf cart. Again, no Xtreme innovation needed. Just take a product that already exists and repurpose it.

3) The Segway was designed with zero market research

Kamen was obsessed with secrecy. He wouldn’t let anyone know what he was working on, because he didn’t want them to steal his idea. This led him to build up hallucinogenic visions in his head about the massive pent-up demand for Segways (“Who’s gonna wanna walk?”) that would have been obliterated by even a cursory 10-minute conversation with a half-dozen normal humans living regular lives.

In contrast, with e-scooters and e-bikes, there’s no big trade secret — no huge Bond-villain, white-cat-stroking proprietary secret that I’d tell you except I’d have to kill you. They’re just scooters and bikes with … an electric motor.

“eScooter in Downtown Brooklyn,” by GriinBlog

That meant manufacturers could make them and sell them quickly and openly. And that means they could rapidly learn from their initial mistakes. The first bunch of e-scooters were kind of terrible; their wheels were dangerously small for potholes, bumps and drainage grates. The later generations developed bigger, thicker tires; it makes the scooters heavier to carry, but they’re safer to ride, and many riders are fine with the tradeoff. Meanwhile, e-bike makers started off just slapping a motor and big ol’ battery to a regular bike. And they quickly learned there’s a very diverse range of customers: Some want a huge “cargo” e-bike that can carry passengers or goods; others want an e-bike so sleek and elegant it requires non-removable batteries built into the frame. These are the sorts of design and engineering things you can only learn when you’re in dialogue with reality, instead of hiding in your Secret Genius Lair.

The next time you’re tempted to build something in secret, creating what you think is the ultimate device that solves the world’s biggest problem, remember the Segway — and get out of your cave.

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