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Segways recalled because of software glitch

Segway Inc. is recalling all 23,500 of the self-balancing scooters it has shipped to date because of a software glitch that can make its wheels unexpectedly reverse direction, causing riders to fall off — and in at least one incident, break some teeth.
Sven Romberg(L) of City Segway Tours giv
A tour group on Segway scooters stops next to the White House in Washington, D.C. Segway is recalling all of the self-balancing scooters it has shipped to date because of a software glitch that can cause the scooter’s wheels to unexpectedly reverse, making riders fall off.Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The injuries that caused Segway Inc. to recall its scooters on Thursday were not numerous, but they sure sound painful: Broken teeth, a broken wrist and some banged-up faces, including one that needed surgery to repair.

There were only six reported incidents in total, including one from a child, but the company believes they all stem from a glitch in the self-balancing, two-wheeled vehicle’s software that — in rare instances — causes its wheels to reverse direction in a sudden, unexpected motion that can jerk riders off their feet.

Despite the bruised faces, Segway Inc. Chief Executive Jim Norrod does not believe the company’s reputation will be left with a black eye.

“We don’t see that it will have a negative impact on business at all,” Norrod said. Segway’s network of distributors seems pleased with the way it has handled the recall, Norrod said, pointing out that the company figured out the problem on its own, without the prodding of regulators.

“Any injury is too much to us,” said Norrod. “This company has built its reputation upon its commitment to safety. From day one, that was and has been our goal.”

The recall involves all 23,500 of the Segway Personal Transporters that the company has shipped to date. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, with whom Segway is cooperating on the voluntary recall, said consumers should stop using the vehicles immediately. The scooters were previously known as the Human Transporter.

Segway is offering its customers, which include more than 150 police departments around the world, a free software upgrade that will fix the problem. The upgrades will be done at Segway’s more than 100 dealerships and service centers around the world, according to company spokeswoman Carla Vallone, and the Bedford, N.H.-based company will pay to ship the devices to the appropriate center if need be.

It is the second time the scooters, which sell for about $4,000 to $5,500, have been recalled since they first went on sale in 2002. The 2003 recall involved the first 6,000 of the devices sold, and involved a problem that could cause riders to fall off the device when its battery ran out of juice.

Segway Chief Technology Officer Doug Field, who has been involved with the development of the device with inventor Dean Kamen since its earliest days, said the problem that sparked the latest recall was found while the company was testing its new model. He said a very unusual and specific set of conditions can cause the problem.

The scooter’s speed is determined by how far forward users lean, and if the riders lean too far forward, a “speed limiter” pushes them back to keep the device at its maximum speed of 12.5 mph. The problem happens after the speed limiter tilts back, then the rider steps off the device and gets back on it quickly.

Field said the actions that cause the problem are of “very low probability, but possible, which then made us go pull every reported accident in the company’s history.” After the company found the six incidents believed to be related to the problem, it notified the CPSC and got the ball rolling on the recall, Field said.

Company officials would not comment on whether the problem has sparked any lawsuits, and would not give any details about the severity of the injuries sustained.

According to CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson, the injuries included broken teeth, a broken wrist and facial injuries including one that needed surgical repair.

Segway’s dealers have received the software updates and owners can schedule an appointment through the company’s Web site to have the update installed.

The company last month launched a new generation of the Segway that users can steer simply by leaning in the direction they want to go, rather than using a small wheel on the handlebar. All new shipments will have the corrected software.

Norrod, who was brought in as CEO last year by the company’s principal investors, Credit Suisse Group and the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has made grooming Segway for an initial public offering or sale of the company a top priority.

The privately held company has been secretive about its financial health, but the total number of vehicles recalled Thursday implies it has tallied up sales in the neighborhood of $100 million or more since the Segway’s launch, about how much the device reportedly cost to develop, not including operational costs since it hit the market. The company also sells modified versions of the Segway for use in robotics projects, and that has likely contributed a small amount to revenue. Those products are not subject to the recall.

The most famous tumble from a Segway came in 2003, when President Bush tried one out at his family’s estate in Maine. The device went down on his first attempt to ride it, but Bush stayed on his feet with an awkward hop over the scooter. However, that incident had a different cause: Bush had not turned on the Segway.