Just another hype?

The Segway, once deemed the mode of transport of the future, is now history. The e-scooter might suffer the same fate. Were these trendy vehicles short-lived fads or long-lasting advances in urban mobility?

Over-populated inner cities, very narrow streets, and "toll only" urban roads: when traffic researchers peer into the future, they describe bleak scenarios but also new transport concepts featuring alternative mobility solutions in which traditional cars play hardly any role. Today countless startups promise to revolutionize urban mobility. However, the fewest of their ideas lead to marketable products or sustainable business models. Dean Kamen also had ambitious plans when he unveiled the Segway in 2001. The inventor's grandiose vision was that the Segway would replace the automobile and revolutionize traffic flow in congested inner cities. Today we would more likely describe it as a disruption. The two-wheeled Personal Transporter can attain speeds of up to 20 km/h and a range of up to 38 km with one battery charging. The largest Segway model weighs 55 kg. Riders stand erectly between the two independently driven wheels. Although users can accelerate or brake by shifting their weight, the Segway's self-balancing capability is its signature feature.

A Niche Product – Not a Game-Changer

Although Jeff Bezos and Apple icon Steve Jobs foresaw a shiny future for the stand-up scooter, the Segway remained a niche product for almost 20 years. With a price tag of several thousand euros, it was just too expensive for most private users. However, "Segway tours" have remained popular. In major cities such as Barcelona, Paris and Berlin, Segway caravans with tour guides are a familiar sight. At some locations the PT became a familiar sight at police stations and security firms patrolling shopping malls. After the death of the company's owner Jimi Heselden – due to a tragic accident on a Segway – the Chinese company Ninebot bought the company names and patents from a U.S. investor in 2015.  But even with a fresh marketing concept and new models, the PT failed to meet expectations. To date barely 140,000 Segways have been manufactured and delivered worldwide. The once futuristic Segway has now outlived the hype. In July production of the original Segway was shut down for simple lack of demand. At the end of its career, the PT accounted for only 1.5 percent of the company's total sales revenue.

 

Segway's Successor

However, the name Segway will not slip off the public's radar entirely. Ninebot recently unveiled the prototype of the S-Pod Personal Transporter. The egg-shaped S-Pod looks like a futuristic chair on two wheels. Like the old system, it uses gyroscopes to stabilize its wheels. In the S-Pod the rider can lean back in a relaxed way. It is steered, like an electric wheelchair, with a joystick. A small auxiliary wheel can be extended or retracted to help riders get on and off. The fast-moving chair can accelerate to 40 km/h and achieve a range of 70 km. However, it has not kicked off a mobility revolution. The S-Pod is more suitable as an alternative for people who are older, have disabilities or are overweight. Ninebot is now focusing on the e-scooter – perhaps the "next big thing"? In any case, four out of five e-scooters in operation worldwide were made at Ninebot's factories.

You can ride the Segway S-Pod in a sitting position – Segway Ninebot © 2020
You can ride the Segway S-Pod in a sitting position – Segway Ninebot © 2020

At the same time, the e-scooters increasingly include sophisticated technical features such as voice control and navigation displays. In large cities they can be rented via an app – an option many commuters use to travel from the train station to their office. However, tourists also rent e-scooters regularly. Scooter-sharing schemes are booming. There is a fierce competition for shares of the scooter-rental market and the position of market leader. In 2019 e-scooter rental firms such as Lime, Bird and a number of other startups flooded the downtown areas of large German cities with their e-scooter fleets. Now, however, the rental services are fighting to survive. Following the decline in scooter trips in the winter, it was hoped that the e-scooters would achieve a major breakthrough in their second season in Germany. In this respect the e-scooter has the same basic problem as the Segway: it is a seasonal vehicle.

The e-scooter: a speedy urban alternative for short distances – Tier Mobility GmbH © 2020
The e-scooter: a speedy urban alternative for short distances – Tier Mobility GmbH © 2020

A long way from series production

The coronavirus put a firm damper on the firms' ambitious expansion plans. People avoided the scooters for fear of infecting themselves on contaminated handlebars. Since then the firms have warehoused large portions of their scooter fleets and cut back on personnel. Their image has also suffered: users who ride illegally on sidewalks, accidents involving scooters, and "wild parking" are common in cities. Many cities have responded by regulating the use of e-scooters. Moreover, scientists at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) assert that "the risk of surving an accident when travelling the same distance is twice as high on an e-scooter as on a bicycle." The poor ecological balance of the e-scooter is another serious drawback: the vision of zero-emissions micromobility becomes a joke when e-scooters with empty batteries are lugged across the city in conventional vans. Moreover, the e-scooters are ready for the scrap heap after only a few months. Is the latest shooting star of urban mobility about to crash?

Historisches Archiv Krupp © 1919
Historisches Archiv Krupp © 1919

A remote ancestor of the e-scooter was a flop

A look into scooter history is instructive: in the past several companies attempted to introduce stand-up scooters. Around 1915 the Autoped Company of Long Island City in New York put their first motor scooters on the market. These vehicles had a speed of 30 km/h; one version even had electric drive. The autopeds, billed as the solution to modern traffic problems, were a market flop and production was closed in 1921.

During WWI the scooter trend crossed the pond to Europe. The Krupp Motor Scooter fared no better. Incidentally, the electric automobile suffered the same fate at the beginning of the 20th century; as we know, it made a comeback 100 years later. At present it is anyone's guess whether the e-scooter will evolve from a "fun mobile" to a serious means of transportation in the near future. "Back in 2017 many investors saw the e-scooter as the answer to their prayers; at that time the car-sharing hype had cooled and it was clear that autonomous driving would not arrive in 2021 as originally forecast," summarized Andreas Nienhaus, partner in the strategy consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

The Krupp Autoped Scooter, one of the remote ancestors of the e-scooter, travelled over city streets more than 100 years ago – Krupp Historical Archive © 1919
The Krupp Autoped Scooter, one of the remote ancestors of the e-scooter, travelled over city streets more than 100 years ago – Krupp Historical Archive © 1919

"In fact, they do not replace individual transport modes but rather pedestrians – and the scooters flood the cities." The consultant sees better integration of the scooters into multimodal mobility networks as the key to success. "The market leader of the future will win out over its competitors by engaging in smart cooperative ventures which meet the rising demands of customers for flexibility and spontaneity when travelling from A to B." The scooter-rental firms are also striving for a better ecological balance by using replaceable rechargeable batteries or zero-emissions transport to the charging stations. Nonetheless, the extent to which the trend depends on scooter-rental firms needs to be examined closely. Representative statistics on purchase of scooters by private customers are not yet available.

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