Segway – Fun but not Mandatory

Segway_logo.svgRecently, I finally got to ride (if that is the right word) a Segway two-wheeler. Quite fun, actually. But when thinking hard about it, it really seems like a pretty pointless invention. Cool technology, fantastic control system design and programming – but still, it does not solve any real problem. As a product manager, my mind tends to view new things with an eye toward “what is the problem they are trying to solve” rather than how fun, attractive, or well-designed they are. Sometimes, good design is the point, of course. However, in this case, we are talking about a transportation device, and as such, the question is where it fits.

The answer? Not very well. It is really hard to dream up a niche where the Segway would be superior to existing means of transportation.

For short trips, under a kilometer or so, walking is clearly the simplest solution. If you are in a hurry, you could take a bike. The Segway can certainly do the job – but at a cost that is about 10 times that of even a very expensive everyday bike.

As the distance goes up, the bike wins. It is more comfortable to sit on a saddle for a long-distance tour, and a bike would often exceed the 20 km per hour speed of the Segway. Also, on the bike you get good exercise while on the Segway you are just standing still. It is probably just a matter of getting used to it, but it actually feels worse to be standing on a Segway for an hour than either walking or biking for the same  time.

If we look at the case of someone who does want some engine assistance for rides up to about 10 km, it would seem a much more suitable vehicle is an electrically assisted bike. Such a device has the same speed as the Segway, but costs a tenth as much and is easier to park as it fits into normal bike racks. I would not leave the Segway around outdoors on its own, so where you would put it is a very good question (bringing it into an office is not an option for most people). It is also faster.

For even longer distances, say from 10 to 20 km, the Segway gets beaten by the classic scooter or moped. Such vehicles are allowed to go much faster than a Segway, and I don’t think most people would accept paying much more to go half as fast. Making it faster would likely make it a bit too dangerous, as if it stops suddenly, the standing human on top would seem very easy to topple.

I am also not entirely convinced about the Segway’s ability to carry typical everyday luggage. A backpack obviously works, but it seems you can only hang a minimal weight on the handle. A child seat like for a bike is clearly out of the question, even if there are racks to carry things on the sides. Segway shows some pictures with a golf bag attached, which would indicate a decent enough ability – if you can fasten things. The general-purpose luggage rack or front basket of a bike would seem more versatile – but maybe the Segway solution is good enough.

Another issue is that the Segway seems designed as a good-weather vehicle. The instructions cautioned about using it on wet surfaces, that it should be out in heavy rain, and it seems that ice on the road and studded tires are not an option available. Not to mention how the batteries might fare in minus ten or twenty degrees celsius. As far as I am concerned, it should be mandatory test products in Siberia or at least northern Sweden or Finland in the winter before considering them suitable for general use. Doing products in California tends to miss some rather important types of weather.

That said, it seems in practice the Segway works just fine on ice – really, running around on slippery surfaces should be an ideal use-case for this type of technology. Computers should be able to react faster and better than a human can, and I suspect that a Segway would keep its balance better on ice than most cyclists (at least those foolish enough not to use studded tires in the winter) do. During my test run with it, I managed to slide down a gravel slope. On a bike, I would most likely have had to put my foot down or even crashed. But the Segway just kepts it balance and stood straight up, helping me recover. Pretty impressive. Still, I think it should be offered in a winter kit with fat studded tires and insulated battery compartment.

Still, the question is where a Segway fits in a transportation market full of alternatives that do most things better.

One case that comes to mind, and where it seems the Segway is really being successful, is guided tours in cities. Walking through a city lets you take in the views really well. But it is too slow to really get very far. Biking gets you around faster, but with a body posture that makes it harder to see around you. The Segway seems to have the perfect speed for tours – if you go around at 10 km per hour or so, you can really see quite a bit, while not getting too tired. A Segway tour should also be more compact when stopped than a pile of bikes would be. Nice match, and it is happening. It also makes it possible for people who have problems walking long distances to still enjoy a city.

The Segway was developed out of a technology for wheelchairs, and as a vehicle for people with various physical disabilities it seems really useful. Even if not formally approved for or sold as such, it seems like a really good device to get people around for distances that would otherwise be insurmountable. Its smarts simply require less of its driver than a bike or a moped, while being less demanding than walking or mobility. It is also fairly unintrusive if managed well, as its footprint is pretty small. One review I read pointed out how it was a great tool for older people, letting them regain mobility lost with age. Better than a car, certainly.

It is a fun toy, a sometimes useful vehicle, but not exactly a great revolution is personal mobility. The very high price and low speed keeps it out of the competition for most people and most use cases, I think.

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