Segway’s Reputation Hits Another Bump

Times Staff Writer

Segway, the two-wheeled personal transporter introduced in 2001 with great fanfare, was going to help reduce air pollution, ease traffic congestion and make riders look George Jetson-cool.

But Thursday, it was looking a little less hip when the federal government ordered Bedford, N.H.-based Segway Inc. to recall all 23,500 scooters sold in the U.S. The recall was prompted by the discovery of a software glitch that can cause riders to be thrown off the vehicle.

It was second Segway recall since they were introduced, but many loyal owners remain undaunted.

“I’ve had a few close calls, but I’m not going to leave my Segway,” said Stuart Moore, a San Jose resident who plays on a Segway polo team.

“It’s just like walking -- you can trip, skip or fall,” said Davie Sie, a self-proclaimed tech guy who founded an Orange County Segway enthusiast group three months ago. He says he’s never met anyone who has had an accident because of the software glitch.


The Segway has been an eye-catcher from the start. Cities across the nation have used them for police work and parking enforcement. In Chicago and Atlanta, businesses offer city tours on Segways. In the Bay Area, a dozen Segway riders play polo twice a month. President Bush tried to ride his parents’ Segway in 2003 and fell off.

Thursday’s recall followed six reported accidents that resulted in broken wrists, teeth and even a chin, said Scott Wilson, spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, which issued the recall.

The recall affects “every Segway sold in the United States,” Wilson said.

The glitch occurs when riders are nearing the top speed of 12.5 mph and the vehicle begins to tilt backward to slow down. This can apply reverse torque on the wheels, throwing a rider off the vehicle.

The 2003 recall of 6,000 vehicles involved a problem in which riders, unaware that they were low on battery, would fall off when the power ran out.

The latest recall is a setback for the vehicle that creator Dean Kamen in 2001 told Time magazine would “be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy.”

Doug Field, Segway’s chief technology officer, on Thursday said Kamen “is an incredible visionary who looks decades ahead in terms of technology. But technology goes through growth phases.”

Not everyone has been happy with the vehicle, its performance or the hype that greeted its introduction.

Samuel Davis, a partner at law firm Davis, Saperstein & Salomon in New York, said he had five open cases of people who were injured when riding the vehicles. He said his clients included an airline pilot who fell on his face when a Segway malfunctioned and a man with multiple facial fractures and a traumatic brain injury.

He said his clients “feel let down that something that was being sold as extremely safe actually wasn’t.”

The Segway has more obstacles to overcome, including the fact that many people find it strange looking , said Paul Saffo, a consulting professor at Stanford’s mechanical engineering department. “It’s a marvelous device ahead of its time.”