Segway Segue

28 09 2010

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to use your own product.

It’s bad enough when, after a decade of trying valiantly to gain public acceptance, hardly anyone wants one. It’s even worse when the company’s owner dies using one.

And that’s what happened over the weekend when James Heselden, owner of Segway, plunged to his death while trying out the new rough terrain model of the two-wheeled transit device. Heselden had just bought controlling interest of the US company last December. Sometimes irony can leave a bitter taste.

While Heselden’s death is certainly tragic, it is almost equally disastrous that the Segway never lived up to expectations. Founder Dean Kamen introduced the device over a decade ago amid much hype and hoopla. Kamen, a veteran inventor with numerous successes across many fields, will go down in history as the developer of something that was to be a revolution…but instead the people revolted.

And said no.

Which raises the question of why such a novel transportation device could thus far be adopted primarily by police and security units, as well as urban tour companies. Sure, we may occasionally see one being used by physically challenged adults (they are, in fact, a godsend for some), but outside of airports and major urban centers, they are pretty darn scarce.

Maybe it was the price (between $5300 and $7200). Maybe it was all the reports of user injuries. And maybe it was the perceived impracticality of it (outside of selected urban applications).

I suppose if everyone lived in compact villages much like in Truman Show, the Segway would be the hands-down winner for transport. If we all lived within a mile of work, play and shopping, it might work (but even then its cargo capabilities are limited). But we don’t, and so the product has languished.

It is also limited by speed and range. A gas or electric scooter can go much farther and faster, as can a standard bicycle. Both of these can be had for much less than a Segway. So why spend two or months’ salary for what amounts to a novelty?

Good question.

Now that the owner has died while using his own product…well, the PR can’t get much worse. Every major media outlet in the western world is carrying this news. It is worse than any Consumer Reports pronouncement of poor product safety. The Segway is not just an accident waiting to happen. No, it is now a death machine.

And I do not say this to make light of Mr. Heselden’s bad fortune. Maybe the product really is unsafe. He just suffered the indignity of proving it.

As for Kamen, I am sure he meant well with his original Segway. And I am sure he really felt like it was going to truly revolutionize human mobility. But like a expensive, sophisticated mousetrap, sometimes the basic model works just as well, if not better.

Given this sad turn of events, it may be time to bury the Segway along with its owner.

Dr “Road Ends Here” Gerlich


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