“Nothing has happened at the level of the pedestrian to improve transportation since we invented the sneaker,” Mr. Kamen said.” We think if you could integrate [this] technology into cities it would be a universal win for everybody.”
Not one to shrink from sweeping statements, he argues that [they] could cause cities to be redesigned, help wean the world from oil dependence, compress time and space for pedestrians and raise productivity for corporations and government agencies.
Ultimately, Mr. Dobbins said, other commuters may want to use the device in conjunction with public transportation.
“The big question is: Will pedestrians consider them socially acceptable on the sidewalk?”
– Extracts from a New York Times article from 2001
Wait, 2001? That’s not a typo?
We’re not talking about dockless e-bikes and e-scooters?
But, the blurb was about urban mobility, new technology, and even mentions the issue of sidewalks, with all those damn dockless bikes/scooters everywhere!
That extract was actually from An Inventor Unveils His Mysterious Personal Transportation Device, a piece talking about Dean Kamen and his then new invention, the Segway.
THE URBAN MOBILITY REVOLUTION THAT WASN’T
Recently dockless e-scooter and e-wheel companies, fueled by some serious cash, have been rapidly expanding in many cities.
When it was first unveiled, the Segway was hyped as the future of urban mobility, the solution to cars, even oil dependence.
The hype was real. But so was the cutting edge technology and superb engineering.
The Segway’s marketing material touted: “The second you step on, 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.”
But 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.
This snark it inspired is almost painful to watch: The Onion – Do You Remember Life Before The Segway
REVENGE OF THE SEGWAY
Then came the hoverboards: mini Segways without the handle or the hefty price tag.
Hoverboards flipped the Segway script. They first started out as a bit of a joke, were sold as toys, and no grand proclamations were made about them revolutionizing anything other than potentially an owner’s dateability. Despite all that, they grew in popularity and became a full blown craze, appearing on Instagram pages (Justin Beiber swiveling, Mike Tyson falling), late night shows (Jamie Foxx), music videos (What Do You Mean), and even a “traditional” Armenian wedding choreography, becoming the hottest tech product around.
Unfortunately, these hoverboards got a little too hot for their own good, literally: they started catching on fire.
The flood of cheap knockoff brands, lack of oversight, and the finicky physics of lithium-ion batteries caused one too many instances of pop-goes-the-hoverboard.
UK and US regulators started issuing warnings. Airlines, colleges, and public transit authorities began prohibiting their use. Some retailers started pulling these wheels off their shelves. And finally, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (https://www.cpsc.gov) declared all hoverboards unsafe and set standards that manufacturers needed to meet, which prompted all major retailers to stop selling them, making them hard to find for anyone not scared of getting their legs blown off.
REVENGE OF THE SEGWAY: PART 2
Which brings us to 2018, where we are now seeing yet another explosion (this time metaphoric) in electric wheels.
This time around, you can rent (sorry, share) them starting at $1. They are within app’s reach and around every street corner: dockless electric bikes and electric scooter sharing.
And this time, it’s chaos (at least if you read the click-baity headlines or angry twats on Twitter).
Some are calling them revolutions in transportation.
Many are calling them toys and some hate them: “Somebody whizzing along at 15 miles an hour, that’s a symbol of entitlement and arrogance,” said Fran Taylor, a retired medical reporter. She called the scooters “a plot of the young people to kill off all us old farts so they can have our rent-controlled apartments.” (Whoa, talk about that get-off-my-lawn-itude.)
Yet this time around, things look serious.
Hundreds of millions of investment have been poured into these companies. Thousands are using and loving them. Non-users are in a tizzy over littered sidewalks. And city officials are tossing out cease and desist letters, because of that social acceptability question that was so prophetically posed back in 2001.
But that’s when you know something’s different: when the investment is real, when the love (AND hate) are real, and when mass adoption is paired with actually utilitarian use as urban mobility, not just for
REALIZATION OF A DREAM
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 Dean Kamen was right all along. Perhaps lightweight electric vehicles were always meant to conquer the streets and solve our mobility issues.
These new, sharable lightweight electric vehicles just might be the “realization of the dream Dean Kamen had with Segway back in 2001.” (quote from Bilal Zuberi’s LinkedIn post, which inspired this post).
They just needed 20 years of technological advancement and component cost reductions, reversion to more familiar form factors, smartphones, swashbuckling entrepreneurs, and a whole new business model.