By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 15, 2006 11:28 AM
The trouble with being an early adopter is that in the headlong rush into the future, you can sometimes land on your face.
Segway Inc. yesterday announced it was voluntarily recalling all 23,500 of its scooters because under certain circumstances they can reverse suddenly and throw riders off.
The Bedford, N.H., company and the Consumer Product Safety Commission urged consumers to stop using their Segways until they can get them to an authorized dealer.
Segways, which sell for $4,000 to $5,000, look like manual lawn mowers with two wheels. They rely on software that operates the gyroscopes and computers that keep their balance.
Segway yesterday began dispatching laptops with the required software patch to authorized dealers, who will download the fix onto Segways when customers bring them in. The process should take less than 20 minutes, spokeswoman Carla Vallone said. The company is sending out representatives with laptops to commercial users, such as tour groups and law enforcement agencies, which use larger fleets. Those who live too far from a dealer can call the company to get the packaging needed to ship their scooter to a dealer.
Yesterday afternoon, Rep Burks, the manager of Capital Segway in downtown Washington, had eight customers waiting for the software upgrade. He was expecting a laptop with the software patch from Segway to arrive later in the day. So was TriState Segway in Leesburg. Segway dealers in Annapolis, Potomac and Carlisle, Pa., are scheduled to obtain a copy of the software fix over the next several weeks.
Austin Colby, who runs Potomac Segway, is working to get his roughly 50 clients taken care of earlier through other dealers. "We're making every attempt to fit our customers in," he said.
Colby and Burks estimate that there are hundreds, but fewer than 1,000, Segway owners in the Washington area.
"I trust my Segway with my life," Colby said. "I personally have one myself and I use it every single day."
City Segway Tours, which offers scooter excursions of the city, was waiting to hear from its dealer, but in the meantime chose to keep its fleet of about 30 Segways up and running yesterday.
"We never had a problem like the one they're talking about," assistant manager Blair Brogan said. "We feel comfortable sending guests out in the meantime."
Segway users can set the scooters to maximum speeds of six, eight and 12.5 miles per hour, Vallone said. They lean forward to make it move. The problem occurs when riders push the scooters beyond the preset speed limits, setting off a "speed limiter," which pushes the rider back. If the rider jumps off and then gets back on the machine, the wheels can reverse with enough force to project the rider off, said CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson.
The company discovered the glitch while testing the latest Segway model, introduced last month, and then identified six incidents in which the software problem had caused accidents.
In one case, a man in Gloucester, Mass., injured his nose, chin, and teeth enough to require some surgery. An Irvine, Calif., woman broke her teeth. One incident in Britain led to a broken wrist.
This is Segway's second recall. Three years ago, it recalled 6,000 scooters after receiving three reports of riders falling when the batteries ran out of power.
Since they were introduced five years ago, Segways have not lived up to Silicon Valley investor John Doerr's prediction that they would be "bigger than the Internet."
One impediment is the coolness factor, or rather the lack of it. Segways have a way of making riders look foolish, especially when they first try one. The most famous example is President Bush, who in 2003 took a spill off a Segway while trying to start it.
Even those who operate them properly don't always command respect.
"My theory for why it hasn't caught on is that you look like a dork when you're on one of those things . . . even if you're in a police uniform," said Paul Saffo, a mechanical engineering professor at Stanford University and Silicon Valley forecaster.
A bigger impediment to widespread adoption, Saffo said, has been battery life. Power was the reason, after months of testing earlier this year, the U.S. Postal Service chose not to use Segways. The battery does not last long enough for mail carriers to use them, a postal service spokeswoman said.
"It's not going to come into its own until we have really robust power supply," Saffo said. "By then, hopefully, they'll work the software bugs out."
To find a dealer, consumers can call the recall hotline at 800-638-2772 or go to http://www.segway.com/ .