The history of the electric vehicle is actually much longer than you might think and I wrote something about that amazing story in a different article on this site, but modern day “hoverboards” and other self-balancing electric people-transporters owe their existence in great part to the invention of one amazing machine – the Segway PT
The development of the Segway PT, short for “personal transport”, was of course the culmination of a team effort. Top scientists and engineers worked to realize the device, but the vision for what the Segway should be belonged to one man, Dean Kamen.
There isn’t enough space in this article to list all of the contributions that Dean Kamen has made to the world, but they include things like the first medicine infuser, invaluable devices to treat diabetes, advanced prosthetics, mobility devices for disabled people, and a water purification system to aid people in the Third World.
Despite all of these inventions, Dean Kamen became a household name thanks to his Segway PT, a personal mobility device that captured the imagination of the world back in 2002. It was a device perhaps too far ahead of its time, but the legacy of the Segway can be seen even today.
The key to the Segway was Kamen’s revolutionary balancing technology. We first saw this in the iBOT powered wheelchair. An earlier invention of Kamen’s, the iBOT had the amazing ability to climb stairs with its unique wheel system, and could balance itself like the Segway later would.
The problem, which would prove prophetic, was that the iBOT cost a staggering $25,000, while Medicare typically only provided $5000 towards a powered wheelchair.
The Segway PT was introduced in 2001 for a staggering price of more than $3000. That’s in 2001 dollars, by the way – in 2015 money that would be just over $4000. Clearly this was not going to go mainstream, and indeed few people could afford the Segway at the time.
It’s easy to forget just how much technology has progressed since 2001. Go have a look at the phones and computers from back then. Compared to what we have today they are positively primitive. For 2001 the Segway was a staggering technological achievement. It was filled with expensive sensors. Those same sensors are now built into the main chip of your smartphone and cost a couple of dollars to include. That was not at all the case in 2001.
Dean Kamen was really convinced that the world would buy into his vision at any price, even $3000 for what amounted to a very expensive curiosity. Today, of course, we know that in terms of market success the original Segway was a bit of a disaster. Time Magazine listed it as one of the ten biggest tech failures of the first decade of the 21st century.
If you look at it from a sales perspective there’s no doubt they were right. However, there have been many products that are precursors to major market successes today that were themselves failures.
One good example is that of the Apple Newton. For all intents and purposes this was the first Apple iPad, except they tried making it with technology that was not up to realizing Steve Jobs’ vision. It bombed badly, but without it we would not have iPads or perhaps even smartphones as we know them today.
Segway still exists today, although it has been bought up by Xiaomi and Ninebot. Xiaomi is a Chinese electronics juggernaut and Ninebot is probably the preeminent self-balancing scooter company. Ironically, Ninebot was accused by Segway of infringing on its intellectual property just months before being bought by them.
Companies like Ninebot are now doing good business selling personal electric transports for more affordable prices. The needed technology has been refined to the point where this is possible. For all its genius, the original Segway PT had quite a few design issues, one of which was that a low battery could cause the rider to fall unexpectedly. Modern products like the Ninebot Mini have ironed out just about everything that was wrong with that 2001 pioneer.
Segway has new models out as well and they are still priced above the competition, but these personal transports remain a gold standard in terms of self-balancing scooter. They are now sold alongside Ninebot branded scooters, as they are all the same brand now.
Thanks to a perfect storm of cheap Chinese manufacturing and celebrity endorsement, the spiritual successor to the Segway has captured the popularity that Dean Kamen no doubt had in mind for his Segway in 2001.
These self-balancing scooters have been nicknamed “hoverboards” by the public, and the companies that make them can’t seem to keep them in stock. Time will tell whether the renewed interest in these modern mini-Segways is a fad or the start of something bigger, but thanks to more congestion, pollution, and dwindling oil reserves, it seems the time is right for Kamen’s vision to finally be realized.