Road bumps don't fluster Segway loyalists

Even after another recall hits the once-hyped company, loyal users remains unfazed. What keeps them going?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
Pam Gotcher, an administrator and psychology instructor at Okaloosa-Walton College in northwestern Florida, has a warm and cheerful demeanor as she talks about her rather ordinary day-to-day life: returning books to the library, grocery shopping, commuting to work.

But then she mentions one thing that's not so ordinary: She does it all on a Segway Human Transporter.

Segway highlights

"Actually, I own three," Gotcher, the moderator of fan forum Segway Chat, added enthusiastically. She's been "gliding"--the preferred term for riding Segways--since 2002. "I have one of the first i167s (the 'original Segway') that came out, and I have a p133 and an i2." The i167 is very close to her heart, she said, because it was autographed by Segway inventor Dean Kamen at one of the inaugural "Segfest" events.

Ask her about the Segway recall announced on Sept. 14, and Gotcher remains equally upbeat. The recall, voluntarily instituted by Segway in conjunction with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, was prompted by the discovery that the vehicles could potentially reverse direction without warning and throw off the rider.

To much of the world, the recall was an embarrassment, the latest step in a series of mishaps that have plagued the much-hyped Segway since its launch nearly five years ago. After all, the most recent recall was by no means the first. There also have been management shake-ups, not to mention the fact that the Segway, once touted as a revolution in transportation, just didn't sell as well as expected. At the time of the September recall, about 23,500 of them had been sold.

But Gotcher was unflustered by the recall. The only downside, in her eyes, was the fact that she had to spend a few days without her Segways while awaiting the software upgrade that the manufacturer had prescribed as a fix.

A fiercely loyal bunch
She said Segway Chat members--there are nearly 4,000 registered--seemed to agree with her. "If they had a concern about the recall, it took one of two positions," Gotcher said. "One is, 'I don't want to be without my Segway, so how can I go for the least amount of time possible without it?' and the second was, 'I would hate to think that people in the world will hear about a recall and think less of Segway.'"

Those two reactions say a lot. Segway owners are a fiercely loyal bunch, and they're the first to admit it. A product recall such as this one is held up by Segway aficionados as an example of superior customer service from a company that genuinely cares about its clients.

Segway representative Carla Vallone said the company discovered the software glitch during routine testing, and was able to tie that discovery to older incident reports that could have arisen from such a problem. Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission, confirmed Vallone's version of the recall and insisted there was nothing strange about the Segway being recalled, even after nearly five years on the market.

Recasting the recall
"There are many products that we have recalls for, where the actual safety issues may not arise until the product has been on the market for a while," Wolfson said. "But the key is, as soon as the company receives a report of an incident or an injury, that they report it as quickly as possible to the CPSC."

Segway appears to have done just that.

According to Karl Sagal, an electromechanical engineer who serves as president of the national Segway Enthusiasts Group of America--which organizes social activities like group glides and SegwayPolo matches, and monitors regulatory issues--Segway's customers were understanding.

"Most of the people that have these machines realize that they're very new machines," Sagal said. Segway owners are "pretty computer literate, and they know that software systems have updates, and so they weren't too upset about it; they were just curious as to what was going on."

Sagal said that a few members of the Enthusiasts Group had been skeptical, worried that the upgrade might cause an undesirable loss in performance, but that the majority were more than willing to comply. "Anybody who's owned Segways for any length of time has probably already updated their machines anyway, but at their request, rather than the company's request," he said.

Prominent Segway enthusiasts like Sagal and Gotcher were equally cheerful about the upgrade process itself. Gotcher, whose Florida residence is not within convenient distance of a dealership that could provide the upgrade, was able to ship her three Segways to the company's Bedford, N.H., headquarters at no cost.

"They do that for everybody," she said. "It's not just me,"

But even if "gliders" like Tom Jacobson were able to recast the September recall as positive news for the company, Segway's image remains troubled. How do you improve the standing of a device that was once hyped as the most important advancement in technology since the Internet but is now known as the novelty device that Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak uses for geeky games of polo?

Jacobson thinks that maybe the Segway just needs more time. "(Founder) Dean Kamen said it was going to change the world. That kind of thing takes years. With automobiles, it took years and years," he said.

But even he is willing to admit that the Segway's current niche market has its upsides. A former skateboarder, Jacobson said that mass acceptance of the Segway could've led to a similar reputation for reckless use and could lead to local municipalities passing ordinances that restrict or even ban the personal transporters.

"If it's a more responsible, slower growth, and the acceptance comes along at a slower pace, it's more likely to have fewer repercussions," he said.

Jacobson still has high hopes for the Segway. "We would save millions and millions of barrels of oil," he mused.