The Urban Transportation Revolution: Return of the Segway
"Don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years.” No, it isn’t LL Cool J. It’s the Segway. And the long-awaited promise of urban transportation disruption. For nearly twenty years, the name Segway evoked images of mall cops and business conference punchlines. But 2019 is a new dawn. Just a couple weeks ago, strolling along Tel Aviv’s busy oceanfront walkway, I found myself surrounded by a fleet of motorized scooters, skateboards and bicycles cruising along at 15 MPH. People of all ages, shapes and sizes riding along on them. And I must admit, it looked fun. A week later in San Diego, and again in Los Angeles, I found myself walking amidst a flock of birds. And I couldn’t help but wonder if Dean Kamen’s prediction was finally coming to fruition?
In 2001, Dean Kamen, a serial entrepreneur and engineer, unveiled the Segway after a long period of anticipation and mystery. Built on the same gyroscopic technology that Kamen designed for the iBot wheelchair, the Segway was considered a marvel of modern mobility. Kamen predicted that “the Segway was going to do to the car, what the car did to the horse and carriage.” Even the vaunted Steve Jobs was on the band-wagon and boldly stated that the Segway was “going to be as big as the PC!” But in the first five years after launch, the Segway sold only 10% of the forecasted demand and the Segway became a lasting symbol of ambitious, but misguided, innovation.
What Went Wrong?
It is an overly simplistic trope to say that the Segway was a technology ahead of its time. But it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that it was a technology in search of a customer and a need. When the Segway first hit the market, it was unclear who the product was exactly for and what problem it was solving. The price point was high. So, it priced out many potential customers. And for those who could afford it, there were numerous impracticalities and inconveniences, such as limited storage or protection in inclement weather. Furthermore, the infrastructure wasn’t ready for this technology. Few places existed where a rider could take a Segway safely, or legally, making it an expensive novelty item. This relegated the Segway to shopping mall corridors, theme park esplanades and group tour trails.
Perhaps most important, people and their behaviors were not ready. In 2001, most would-be, early-adopters hadn’t even conceived of sharing transportation with complete strangers. Today, the defining characteristic of today’s scooters is the cooperative nature of the sharing economy. There has been a veritable explosion in businesses that have normalized the idea of sharing, from Uber to Airbnb to Rent-a-Runway, to name a few. Furthermore, the ability to seamlessly transact has also been a major enabler. Today, you can scan a QR code with your phone and within a moment borrow or abandon a scooter. Twenty years ago, transaction processing and mobile networks weren’t mature enough to accommodate this burgeoning market. Even the growing ethos of curtailing carbon emitting technologies and the subsequent increase in the number of bike lanes in urban centers has played a role in the spread of this technology. Ownership of vehicles has significantly declined over the past two decades. And in its place is a flock of Birds, Limes and Ninebots. Today, you can find these scooters in more than 100 cities, from the Americas to Asia, Europe and Australia. And according to Ninebot, the company which acquired Segway, the company is expecting to “ship more than one million scooters this year — 10 times the number of units sold in its first 17 years.”
What’s the Lesson?
Perhaps Dean Kamen was ahead of his time. But so was Kodak with digital photography, IBM with voice to text technology and TiVO with the Digital Video Recorder. The fact is that Kamen could have just as easily been kicking himself for missing the opportunity of a lifetime by shelving a transformative technology. Instead, I believe there is a very different lesson to be gleaned from this story. And that is that Dean Kamen and the Segway team should have taken more of a Learner’s Approach. At the time of commercialization, the Segway was “developed and tested under the greatest secrecy out of the fear that a competitor might beat them to market.” Kamen was certain that when they built it, customers would come. But they never tested the most important, or killer, assumptions, which are the risks that are most uncertain and could have the greatest impact on the success of the business. Because Segway was shrouded in mystery, they eschewed learning from potential lead users that could have shed light on pricing, design and infrastructure challenges. Compare this to the example of Google Glass, the transformative wearable technology. Rather than rushing to commercialization, Google started selling a prototype “to qualified Glass Explorers” to better understand their target audience, their needs and understand the potential killer assumptions. And despite the early enthusiasm, Google chose to discontinue the first edition based on their learnings and adapt the design and business model. The fault of the Segway did not lie in the stars, rather it was a shortcoming of the Segway team’s approach in commercializing the Segway.
The pundit and baseball legend, Yogi Berra, said it best when he proclaimed, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Dean Kamen predicted a revolution a couple decade earlier than the rest of us. But sometimes developing the next big thing takes more than just foresight. It takes a learner’s mindset to challenge the killer assumptions that can sink a technology, and a revolution, even if you got it right.