As the fastest man alive, with 17 gold Olympic and IAAF medals in his trophy case, Usain Bolt was a man who could not be toppled. That is, at least, until the sprinter met Song Tao. Bolt had just won the men's 200-meter final in Beijing. Tao, a TV cameraman, was following Bolt on his victory walk when he took the runner down with a 90-pound weapon of steel.
Tao was riding on a Segway.
The August collision was only the latest in the bizarre legacy of a technology that was to have changed the world. At its public unveiling in 2001, inventor Dean Kamen promised the Segway—which used computerized gyroscopes to allow standing riders to speed around by shifting their body weight—"will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy." Segway's factory was to have stamped out 10,000 machines a week and posted sales of $12 billion by 2002.
As everyone knows, that never happened. And the reasons why are about as simple—and complicated—as a Segway. "First of all, it was too expensive," said James Canton, CEO of the Institute for Global Futures, referring to the Segway's $6,000 asking price. The machine was also heavy. Its batteries limited its range. Cities couldn't figure out where the Segway belonged—street, sidewalk or neither.
But the biggest problem was how the Segway was an engine for its own bad publicity. "It was the safety thing," said global futurist Jim Carroll. "People said, 'I'm going to get on it and break my neck.'" In 2003, President George W. Bush fell off his Segway while on vacation, an incident ridiculed by British journalist Piers Morgan. Four years later, Morgan fell off his own Segway and broke three ribs. Then in 2010, U.K. entrepreneur Jimi Heselden—who'd just bought the troubled Segway corporation—rode a Segway off a cliff on his Yorkshire estate. Heselden died. So did the last hope of Segway ever becoming a mainstream product.
Since then, Segway seems to have staked its future on sales of its Patroller model to police departments and other institutional clients. The brand returned to the public eye this past holiday season with the explosive popularity of hoverboards, the self-balancing scooters some have called the "Segway without a pole." In fact, despite brand names like Swagway, hoverboards have nothing to do with Segway, which has filed suit against one brand, Hovertrax, for alleged patent infringement. (Hoverboards are following in the Segway's tread path in another way: Amid safety concerns, municipalities are banning them from roads and sidewalks.)
Ultimately, Segway's problem was that it filled a need that didn't really exist. "It was counterintuitive to biking or walking," Canton said, "an elite micro transport that struggled to find its place." And, unless you count mowing down Olympic runners, Segway still hasn't.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 4 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.