Jimi Heselden, the former miner who used his severance pay to start a military contracting company that made him very rich, was discovered dead on Sunday when his Segway personal transporter was found at the bottom of a cliff in the River Wharfe in the north of England. Heselden's body was discovered beside his Segway, which is a big blow for the company and the Segway itself, which has always won far more media attention than it has customers.
The incident -- the police haven't ruled it anything but an accident -- makes the 62-year-old Heselden look a bit of a fool, but he was anything but.
Heselden owned the company, having bought it from Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, the original venture backers of Dean Kamen's much-anticipated device, last December. It's no accident that a military contractor was the ultimate owner of Segway, though it is a tragedy that Heselden should die this way. It turns out a lot of people -- not just George W. Bush -- fall off Segways and get themselves badly hurt. Segway's failure to become a mainstream vehicle is a function of two things that make it an ideal product for a military contractor.
The first is that the application for Dean Kamen's device turns out to be quite small. Ignoring the gewgaw of the self-balancing device, the Segway does one thing exceptionally well. It increases the normal ambit of an adult four times or more. A human being walks at 3 miles per hour. The Segway moves at 12 mph without much physical effort on the users part.
Initially, Kleiner Perkins' John Doerr, Steve Jobs and dozens of others saw this as a meaningful change. If people could travel four times the distance with almost no exertion, wouldn't everyone want to own one? Couldn't these devices replace much more expensive second and third cars for commuting, doing errands and expanding urban dwellers' ideas of what constitutes "walking distance."
That didn't happen because the Segway doesn't fit anywhere in the world's transportation infrastructure. Too fast for the sidewalk and too slow for the road, there was no place for the Segway to live. Buses and commuter trains had no place for them.
The second big problem with the Segway was its price. At $5,000, the Segway was cheaper than a car but much more expensive than a bicycle or about the price of a scooter that seemed to fit the roads better. In an age of disruption, the Segway was a great example of the perfect becoming an enemy of the merely good.
Those two weaknesses were strengths when it came to police and military applications. Increasing the range of a foot patrol is very valuable for security applications. There the price tag, where the device is used through multiple shifts and without rest, is easier to justify. Armies and municipalities can digest the $5000 price. To them, that's cheap.
When you consider the success of un-manned drones as a 21st century weapon transforming air warfare, it's not hard to imagine uses for the Segway in creating a mobile un-manned ground force. In Australia, they've used Segways as the basis of urban warfare training robots. This video gives a sense of where Segways and guns can go.
Segway's troubled history as an over-hyped product ended with its sale to Heselden's company. Although the company was a long way from ever making back the $100 million or more invested in its development, Segway no longer looked like such a stupid idea. That is, until Heselden died on one.