How the much-ridiculed personal transportation device finally found a niche.
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
Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.
Photograph of the Segway by Mario Tama/Getty Images.