CBSN

Motorized unicycles whiz through city streets

"Look, Mom, no hands!"

Somewhere between a skateboard and a Segway -- but with more of a "cool factor" -- a new personal transportation vehicle called a self-balancing unicycle, or SBU, is zipping down city streets.

The SBUs certainly capture bystanders' attention. They have footpads and either one or two wheels, but no handlebars, so the rider stands up straight and hands-free while they travel.

"I joke around that it's like flying a hovercraft or something because you're going so fast and the wind is blowing. It feels great," Jerome Smith, who uses his SBU for commuting in New York City, told CBS News' Jill Wagner.

SBUs use rechargeable batteries and, like old-fashioned unicycles, are directed through rider movements. The one-wheeled version has a foot platform that folds down on itself so it looks like a disc. Two-wheeled versions, also referred to as self-balancing scooters, look like reconfigured skateboards with wheels on the ends. They can be folded in half for increased portability.

It takes some time to master an SBU. The single-wheel SBU, like the popular Chinese-made "Ninebot One," can hit speeds between 8 and 14 miles per hour. The rider directs all 20 to 30 pounds of metal and plastic by leaning forward to go and backward to brake.

But what about safety? The two-wheeled Segway has seen its share of accidents and the company owner famously rode one off a cliff. SBUs are not made to keep up with cars and can't be driven in motor vehicle lanes. Riders need to wear the same protective gear as on a bicycle. An SBU is only recommended for travel on mostly-flat surfaces, and riders should avoid hills with more than a 20 percent grade.

Ninebot, which recently bought Segway, says it only takes a few minutes to learn to ride their SBU, "though the learning curve depends on the person. For some, it may take several days."

In the beginning, Jerome says he had his share of spills and scrapes. "Lots of bruises, lots of falling over."

But transportation researchers say this new trend could show more promise than other trendy scooter-style devices.

"These devices have a cool factor that the Segway was missing -- and they are highly portable," Sarah Kaufman, assistant director for technology programming at NYU's Rudin Center for Transportation, told CBS News.

Different SBU models come with a price tag ranging from about $200 to more than $1,000.