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Segway scooters hit a snag

It’s another bump in the road for Segway. The maker of the high-tech motorized scooter has agreed with the federal government to issue a recall after a handful of riders fell off and were injured.
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It’s another bump in the road for Segway. The maker of the high-tech motorized scooter has agreed with the federal government to issue a recall after a handful of riders fell off and were injured.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued the recall Friday, saying three people had been hurt by a glitch that caused them to fall off, usually when the scooter’s batteries were low. One suffered a head wound and needed stitches.

The recall affects some 6,000 of the single-rider, two-wheeled scooters that look like a cross between a lawnmower and a pogo stick. The device, which can travel up to 12.5 mph, uses gyroscopes to keep it upright, making it stable and difficult to tip over.

But under some conditions, especially if the battery charge has fallen, some of the scooters may lack the power to function properly and riders can fall off. Problems can occur if a Segway rider speeds up sharply, encounters an obstacle or keeps riding the scooter after a low-battery signal, the commission said.

The problem can apparently be fixed with a free software upgrade offered through Segway LLC or its resellers. Owners were directed to call the company, which said it would directly contact owners as well.

Segway told dealers and owners about the upgrade before it was publicly announced. Some retailers also alerted their customers., perhaps the biggest seller of the devices, was alerting owners by e-mail, said spokesman Bill Curry, and “every Segway that we ship will have the upgraded software.”

A salesperson at NEVrland, a Segway dealer in Florida, said Segway had already sent out representatives to fix the scooters, which were available to rent Friday morning. Daniel Mauer of Utah Segway dealer, said his fleet of 10 rental Segways had already been upgraded and he was “very pleased” with the company’s response.

Many Segway customers, meantime, were contacting dealers. “I started getting e-mail at 5 o’clock this morning,” said said Matthew Gelbwaks, vice president of operations for Relay Transportation, which owns NEVrland. “I’ve already gotten e-mail from somebody in Switzerland.”

According to Gelbwaks, the problem occurs in the scooter’s management of power when the level of torque required by its motor changes sharply — a shift that can require a sudden jolt of battery voltage.

The new software adds alerts for riders by vibrating the platform they stand on and emitting a series of beeps if the scooter is running out of juice. “At no point is the design set up so that it will stop balancing and drop,” Gelbwaks said.

Before new owners ride their Segways, the company urges them to undergo an orientation and safety course, which it provides free of charge. Renters also must get a safety briefing before they hop on.

Hype outpaces sales
The Segway was unveiled in December 2001 to much fanfare by inventor Dean Kamen, who gained earlier renown with his designs for a wheelchair that can climb stairs and the first portable dialysis machine. Kamen, who holds dozens of patents, carefully orchestrated the unveiling of Segway, but it was upended when rumors of a mystery project known as “Ginger” or even “IT” began to spread and a search of patent designs revealed the broad strokes of his plans months before unveiling.

Since Segway’s release, Kamen has faced an uphill battle to win regulatory approval for the devices. He sought to market them to government agencies and the U.S. Postal Service, as well as consumers. Police departments in New York and Atlanta were among those to try them out, but the 95-pound scooters have been slow to take off. Kamen’s company also faced a tangle of regulatory roadblocks. Some 40 stateshave approved their use, but local rules vary widely and some cities — most notably San Francisco — banned Segways from the streets.

Kamen had predicted his New Hampshire factory would churn out 10,000 machines a week, but sales remain far short of that — with the 6,000 recalled scooters seeming to comprise most of the fleet. The company has acknowledged Segway hasn’t gained the traction with buyers they had forecast.

Steve Kemper, author of “Code Name Ginger” (Harvard Business School Press, $27.95), noted that the recall glitch was minor and said Kamen and his meticulous team of engineers knew it would be “inevitable” that riders would injure themselves no matter how many safety features were incorporated.

“It’s a brand-new technology, it’s a revolutionary technology,” said Kemper, who spent months at Kamen’s offices as Segway was developed. “Everybody at that place knew somebody would get hurt at some point.”

Though rider safety has dominated the debate over Segways, Kemper believes the real issue that’s hampering sales is the machine’s price tag. Since it largely remains a novelty for consumers, the $4,950 sticker price keeps it slightly out of range for the average gadget junkie.

“Nobody was concerned about the safety after they took a ride,” Kemper said. “They were all concerned about the money.”

The recall was issued for all HT i167 models, which are the ones sold to the general public, but Kamen’s company has included commercial “e Series” and the new “p Series” scooters currently being marketed as test models for around $4,000.

Owners were asked to call Segway at (877) 889-9020 to schedule an upgrade.