The experiment in Florida highlighted another problem: Segway developed and tested the PT under the greatest secrecy. The company worried a competitor might beat it to market, and suspected Japanese automakers were working on a similar device. Employees kept the shades drawn. In some cases, they sealed the blinds with tape, lest someone try to peek through the narrow gap between the blind and window frame. They hid the scooters in plywood crates before transporting them.
But working this way kept Segway from figuring out what people might want or need in a scooter.
"How do you do product testing if you can't go outside?" said Jonathan Pompa, an early Segway engineer. "It worked really well at driving around an engineering office, because that's what we were doing with it, instead of driving around in a city."
Kamen's singular focus on the PT created another problem: Although Segway built prototypes of electric bikes, four-wheelers, skateboards and even a unicycle — many of which Ninebot, its eventual owner, currently offers — it never commercialized them. It couldn't, because it didn't have the money.
Segway struggled to bring the price of the PT down to a consumer-friendly $1,000. The cost of its nickel metal hydride battery made that impossible. Manufacturing in New Hampshire, rather than China, didn't help. Despite the company's best efforts, the PT remained frightfully expensive.
"Five or six grand for one of these things was crazy," said Klee Kleber, Segway's vice president of marketing from 2004-07. "The price was way out of whack."
You won't get any argument from Jim Norrod, the company's CEO from 2005 until 2009.
"A lot of people said our products were too expensive, they were too high-priced. Yeah, they were," Norrod said. "You know why? I needed the money to run the company."
Beyond the exorbitant cost, the world was not ready for electric vehicles. Oh sure, there were plenty of wealthy techies for whom it was a fun toy, and Segway was able to experiment with rental programs and even to explore a partnership with Zipcar, the car-sharing outfit. But it lacked the infrastructure needed to truly transform transportation.
Plus, buying one was a headache. The first customers had to travel to regional training centers for lessons. And once you bought one, there was no clear place to ride it. A lot of people didn't want them on sidewalks. Unlike the ride-hailing and scooter startups of today, the company spent years working within the system to win friends and change rules.
"Did we need to pass a law in Mississippi? Did we need to pass a law in North Dakota? No," said Matt Dailida, who led a nationwide push to make Segways on sidewalks legal. "But it was a fundamental belief at the company's highest levels that we wanted to be engaging public officials and get their buy-in and excitement."
Norrod was doing everything he could to rein in costs and keep Segway afloat when General Motors threw him a lifeline in 2007. The two companies started developing the EN-V, a pod-shaped lightweight electric vehicle concept that GM would unveil three years later at Expo 2010 in Shanghai.
Just as things looked up, though, the financial crisis hit.
"I'm sitting there with no ability to bring money in," he said. "Venture capitalists are basically cutting out their non-profitable businesses. The stock market craters. That's what I'm staring at and saying, 'what am I going to do?' I had to find any deal that was going to work."
GM seemed like an obvious buyer. Together they could commercialize the EN-V and fulfill the long-delayed Segway vision of post-car urban transportation. GM's bankruptcy dashed those hopes. Instead, Norrod engineered a sale to Heselden, the British entrepreneur. When he died, Brown took over.