First, Segway was supposed to revolutionize urban mobility. Then Segway was supposed to be dead.
20 years ago, the original self-balancing Segway was billed as the future of urban mobility. Soon after launch though, it proved a resounding flop, failing to amount to much of anything other than becoming a trademark of mall cops everywhere and fodder for late night comedians.
But with e-bike and e-scooter sharing, little electric vehicles are back with a vengeance.
In our first piece we chronicled the recent history of little electric vehicles starting from the original Segway and its inventor Dean Kamen’s dream for revolutionizing urban mobility to the recent boom of dockless electric scooter and bike sharing.
We ended our story on the following note:
“Nearly 20 years after the introduction to the vehicle that was supposed to revolutionize urban mobility, these dockless e-bikes and e-scooters just might vindicate Segway’s 20-year-old vision.
And in a fun bit of poetic irony, the scooters being used by Bird, Spin, and Limebike are actually manufactured by Ninebot, the company who bought Segway.
Or maybe it’s not ironic.
Perhaps [inventor] Dean Kamen was right all along. Perhaps lightweight electric vehicles were always meant to conquer the streets and solve our mobility issues.”
So Segway never actually died.
It continued selling it’s iconic Segways as niche products and in 2015 was acquired by rival Chinese manufacturer, Ninebot. It also diversified into a few other types of electric wheels like mini Segways, electric unicycles, and electric scooters.
But only did Segway not die, but with the recent explosion in two-wheeled micro-mobility and Segway’s exciting plans for the future, it might actually be poised to succeed even beyond Kamen’s wildest dreams.
Here is the inside scoop!
DISRUPTING BIG AUTO AND OIL
Almost no one sees it yet (some notable exceptions being Benjamin Schneider from CityLab, Innovators Dilemma author Clayton Christensen), but little electric vehicles have the potential to create seismic shifts in urban mobility.
Presently, the default mode of transportation in most cities is the car.
Yet very few stop to think what an absolute overkill the car is for almost all urban trips. It weighs several tons, is designed to go 90+ mph and carry/tow hundreds of pounds of cargo, but instead it typically only carries one person going 25-35 mph stopping at red lights or crawling in traffic, all the while belching huge amounts of emissions, crashing and killing people, causing urban sprawl, and costing tens of thousands of dollars.
It is like the overpriced cable bundle with hundreds of channels that no one watches that we can now ditch with Internet streaming services.
But if cars are so terrible, how and why did they succeed? Did the free market not show they were superior forms of mobility?
Cars succeeded on a mass scale not because they were such a great inventions, but because of massive oil and auto interests and top-down government planning and massive direct and indirect subsidies. For instance, Interstate Highways System was a direct result of lobbying by big oil and auto.
Now compare the bloated automobile with a scooter and bike, which are incredibly lightweight, amazingly energy efficient, super affordable, healthy and active forms of mobility, zero emissions, extremely safe (in dedicated lanes, protected from cars), virtually traffic free, incredibly fun, have tiny physical footprints requiring a fraction of the storage capacity needed, and are very accessible to those who cannot drive like kids, many elderly, and many with disabilities.
And now add the advent of motors, batteries, smartphones, GPS, and self locking technologies that allow bikes and scooters to be used effortlessly by anyone and to be unleashed from the constraints of ownership and designated docks, you have a mode of mobility that comes very close to matching or even surpassing the user experience of cars.
It might seem premature to proclaim that the little electric vehicles will eliminate car dominance.
Yet in an era of increased urbanization, global warming, urban traffic/pollution, and diminishing resources, little electric vehicles are perfectly suited for urban mobility making them prime candidates for disrupting the old, car based mobility model (“disruption” not in the generic and overused sense of a new and hyped technology, but in the way Clayton Christensen first coined the term; think smartphones to PCs or Wikipedia to encyclopedias).
This sentiment was echoed in our conversation with VP of Global Business Development at Segway, Tony Ho: “Scooters are considered toys by most people. Segway on the other hand, thinks they are transport devices.”
The massive car, already shunned by countless forward-thinking cities, urbanists, and woke young people, the car will likely be buckle under its own weight and eventually go the way of the dinosaur thanks to the appearance and enthusiastic adoption of dockless bikes and scooters (coupled with mass transit of course).
EARLY EVIDENCE FOR DISRUPTION
This disruption in urban mobility is no longer theoretical.
The evidence is already surfacing as scooter and bike sharing companies find a huge latent demand for quick, easy, cheap, and fun urban mobility.
First, the effects of dockless scooters on car-sharing was so sudden, quickly eating away at the lucrative 1-2 mile rides, that we saw a swift acquisition of bike sharing company JUMP by Uber, investment of bike/scooter sharing Lime, by Uber, Google Ventures, and Alphabet, acquisition of Motivate by Lyft, and a massive reframing of both Uber and Lyft as mobility providers, not just car-sharing companies.
Second, as people started using electric scooters and bikes regularly, we saw many transitioning from renting to purchasing, causing shortages of many models of electric scooters.
These events are actually freakishly in line with father of disruption, Clayton Christensen’s prophetic 2015 diagnosis: When challenged to consider if Tesla would disprove his thesis by coming in at the high end of a market, his team’s analysis showed that Tesla wasn’t actually a disruptinve innovation at all, but a sustaining one, a tell-tale sign being that competitors are not ignoring it. When asked to give an example of a disruptive innovation in transportation, he pointed to “neighborhood electric vehicles.”
Finally, as millenials were already shirking the car, dockless e-bikes and e-scooters have now given them a truly viable car alternative, and they have wholeheartedly embraced them.
A MOBILITY REVOLUTION POWERED BY SEGWAY
While the name Segway is still inextricably linked to the original two wheeled, self-balancing contraption, this narrow association might soon be replaced with another one, thanks to a new marketing strategy.
Even though most people had never even see a computer’s CPU, Intel became a household name thanks to their incredibly successful “Intel Inside” campaign.
Segway will soon employ a similar strategy.
They will manufacture little electric vehicles for whoever wants to rent or sell them, but will make their presence and technology visible with a “Powered By Segway” mark on every unit.
ROBUST NEW SCOOTERS
The first models of scooters being used by Lime, Spin, and Bird were the Segway ES2 and Xiaomi Mi. They were orignially intended as consumer products that were designed to be portable and easy for owners to fold, carry, and store them in their homes, offices, and on public transit.
However, such a design isn’t terribly sturdy for the demands of scooter sharing. So Segway is developing a new, heavy-duty generation of scooter specifically for the bumps and bruises that sharing requires.
Again, from Segway VP Tony Ho: “We take safety, ride experience and quality seriously. To compact all the smarts and power in a small form factor such as a kick scooter, and make them in mass quantity yet affordable, is no easy task. We have made significant investment in technology, design and manufacturing of Segway scooters, and we will be introducing new product in rapid pace.”
MOBILITY AT THE PUSH OF A BUTTON
Elon Musk might be well known for his vision of autonomous cars being summoned at the push of a button.
Yet Segway might beat him to the punch.
Today’s bike/scooter sharing companies are already fairly easy to use. A quick glance on many major city streets will likely result in spotting a dockless bike or scooter. If that doesn’t work, a smartphone app can reveal the nearest available two-wheeler.
Yet as the number of users and service areas increase, finding a scooter might start proving a bit time consuming.
So what if the scooter came to you instead, summoned at the push of a smartphone tap or Siri/Google command?
Loomo is Segway Robotics’ first offering: a mini Segway that can follow it’s owner around when not in use.
But that’s just the first act for Segway Robotics.
Such intelligent technology might soon allow electric scooters, electric self-balancing Segways, and a host of other little electric vehicles to be instantly summoned!
And with Loomo Go, Segway anticipates such technology enabling delivery of packages, take out food, and groceries. Or perhaps it could serve as a personal delivery device, wheeling a cake to your baked friend’s place or returning those sunglasses that your absentiminded coworker forgot at your place again??
THE INTERSECTION OF MOBILITY AND CONNECTIVITY
If ever there was an overused and overhyped technology term, the “smart city” would be a close contender. One reason the promises of the smart city have not borne much fruit is the time, money, and red tape it requires to wire up a city with network connections, sensors, etc.
Yet companies like Bird and Lime have been able to put hundreds of thousands of scooters and bikes in cities all around the county in just a matter of months. Each of these vehicles is already equipped with GPS and cellular connectivity to allow users to find them and to help sharing companies to keep track of them.
This intersection between mobility and connectivity is just the beginning.
Just as wireless towers leapfrogged land lines in underdeveloped parts of the world, so too can little vehicles help cities leapfrog much of the fixed infrastructure needed and serve as mobile nodes in the nimble and connected city.
Segway is working on laying out the foundation for scooters as a pivotal role in the Internet of things.
As Tony Ho explains, “One can safely speculate that future Segway scooters will be “smart” out of box. In other words, they will be equipped with networking capability by design, and essentially become smart phone on wheels. They will be connected with the collective cloud. Each scooter will no longer be an island, but a node in the network of mobile sensors.”
Similarly, in our soon-to-be-released interview, Rob Cotter, founder of Organic Transit explains how little electric vehicles can play a central role in smart cities, serving as nodes in a wide mesh network, acting as mini cell towers, as battery banks, and as a sensor suites for air pollution, pothole detection, etc. The coming rollout of 5G for instance, telecos will need to install many more towers compared to today’s 4G to achieve the promised high bandwidth. Instead of trying to stick fixed towers everywhere, they could perhaps wire little electric vehicles like the ELF and have them serve as roaming towers, creating an immediately deployable network rather than spending the months or years it takes to put fixed towers everywhere.
So while fixed hardware might take a long time and be expensive to lay down, little vehicles could blanket a city with high-band towers, sensors, and even energy storage, vastly accelerating the promises of the smart city.
And thus, not only are little electric vehicles poised to disrupt and radically improve urban mobility, they are the perfect conduit to rapidly upgrading our cities’ connectivity.
SEGWAY: THE 21ST CENTURY FORD?
With disruptive with little electric vehicles, a new generation of robust scooters built for sharing, scooter summoning technology, smart connectivity and an “Intel Inside”-like marketing strategy, it’s no wonder that Segway recently raised $240 million and is even considering an IPO.
Segway has the name, the technology, the manufacturing capacity, the capital, and the pieces to power this massive transportation shift.
But can it dethrone big auto and big oil as the default urban mode of mobility, and become the 21st century equivalent of Ford, BMW, or Toyota?
To get to that point, Segway should start thinking as big as car companies did.
Scooters are causing quite a kerfuffle wherever they land. With no good place to ride them, users are scooting on sidewalks annoying many and infuriating some, or riding in woefully inadequate bike lanes, irking drivers and bikers alike. Yet this is not the fault of scooters. For decades, the car has dominated our roads, hogging almost the entire road, and cities have bended over backwards to accommodate them. Scooters are merely exposing this egregious offense.
Yet, perhaps the way to allow mobility diversification, to drastically reduce our mobility carbon footprint, to make our roads accessible to everyone, would be for little wheel companies from Segway to Lime, Bird, Spin, et al to think big…unreasonably big.
We’re already seeing calls for street redesign to accommodate scooters. If we are to see a true mobility revolution, moderate proposals for street redesigns should just be the beginning.
When car companies looked to their future, they didn’t ask for reasonable infrastructure. Their vision demanded the entire street, for billions of dollars for a highways system, and for car parking absolutely everywhere. With today’s car gridlock, pollution, etc, it’s hard to remember that this vision is actually what made cars exciting. In an age of technological progress, car companies promised freedom and mobility with amazing, ubiquitous living rooms on wheels that allowed anyone to go anywhere, anytime.
Imagine if they had just asked for some reasonable infrastructure: a network of car lanes. Would they have succeeded as wildly as they did?
Ford lowered the cost of the automobile with the assembly line. Yet without the billions (if not trillions) spent on automobile infrastructure, Ford would not have been Ford.
Likewise, only if Segway starts thinking unbelievably big can it truly be able to truly revolutionize mobility, this time for the better, and live up to Kamen’s vision of democratizing the streets.
If Segway can form a coalition of little electric vehicle sharing and manufacturing companies and paint an incredibly inspirational vision to the public and to governments, as big auto and big oil did, then Segway just might become 21st century Ford.
THE LAST LAUGH
The original two wheeled Segway was a flop.
From our first piece: “…whether it was they high price of $4,950, or the, shall we call it, overly innovative form factor, the Segway went from 0-nowhere fast and quickly became the butt of jokes.”
20 years later, it looks like Segway might have the last laugh.
And looking out 20 years into the future, if Segway plays its cards right, it’ll probably be not a chuckle, but a long, hearty belly-laugh.
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