Xiaomi’s plan to revive the Segway is not as insane as it sounds

Nice wheels.
Nice wheels.
Image: Xiaomi
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Today the Chinese smartphone vendor Xiaomi announced it would begin selling what it calls a “self-balancing scooter” to customers on its domestic website. Dubbed the Ninebot mini, the two-wheeled, battery-powered vehicle can travel up to 22 kilometers per charge, at a maximum speed of 16 kilometers per hour. The price? 1999 yuan, about $316.

The term “self-balancing scooter” these days might draw comparisons to the current craze for so-called “hoverboards”—two-wheeled platforms (which don’t actually float or “hover”) made by companies such as Swagway and Likary. But for those with slightly longer memories, if the above image makes you think “Segway,” you’re onto something: Xiaomi helped Ninebot, a Beijing-based robotics startup, acquire the makers of that doomed invention of the early 2000s in April of this year.

In an interview with Chinese domestic media, Ninebot founder Wang Ye admitted that he bought Segway primarily for the patents and brand name. But there are other reasons that the two-wheeled vehicle deserves a second chance in the coming years.

Technology has evolved dramatically since the original Segway’s release in 2001. Early models weighed a minimum of 30 kilograms. The Ninebot mini, meanwhile, weighs 12.8 kilograms—light enough for the physically fit to carry up a set of stairs. A quick glance through Amazon’s sales listings for “scooters” reveals a number of gadgets with similar price points, weights, and charging cycles.

Whereas early Segways were steered using a shoulder-level handlebar, newer scooters like the Ninebot mini track one’s knee movement to drive direction. That could potentially free one’s hands to do something else during a short trip.

“An overwhelming majority of the trips we take are within the range of one to five kilometers,” Ninebot founder told Chinese media in April. “You can think of the self-balancing scooter as a mode of transportation that you can carry, one that you can keep closer to you than your car.”

In China, Xiaomi and Ninebot’s true competition is the standard moped-like scooter, of which there are an estimated 200 million on the road in China (link in Chinese) in 2013.

But China’s cities might make good testing grounds for a Segway revival. Westerners often think of bike lanes as skinny veins squeezed towards the edges of a busy road. But in China, main roads often accommodate one or several types of bike lanes, many of them quite wide, and some physically gated apart from roads and sidewalks. These spacious stretches of pavement could potentially accommodate a handful of Ninebot vehicles during commutes—particularly among tech-savvy professionals who can’t afford a car and view bicycles as old-fashioned.

It’s not clear whether the Segway will ever become more than a toy for gadget lovers or vehicle for park rangers and mall cops. But Xiaomi has created winners out of thin air in the past. In addition to its robust smartphone business—it sold 61 million handsets last year—the company sells the world’s third-most-popular wearable fitness tracker. With the help of a Chinese owner, the Segway’s wheels might spin again.