Features | From Pivot Magazine

Would you glide to work on these e-roller skates?

Segway hopes its newest offering will skirt traffic jams—and the company’s nerdy image

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photo of person riding Segway's new e-skates over cobble stone pathNinebot is hoping the Drift W1 will appeal to commuters who’d rather not sit in their cars in ever more congested traffic (Daniel Neuhaus)

Beijing-based Ninebot most famously produces the Segway—the two-wheeled contraption that’s become synonymous with lazy tourists spinning around theme parks and city centres. To refresh its image, Ninebot has released a sleeker alternative. The Drift W1 is a pair of futuristic e-roller skates, controlled through a smartphone app, that intuitively glide and turn depending on how the rider shifts their weight. At roughly $600 a pair, the one-wheeled platforms can travel up to 12 kilometres before their lithium-ion batteries need a recharge. But will they become the mobility device of the future—a fast, efficient way to zip around town? Or, like the original Segway, are they destined to become a meme-fuelling punchline?

Ninebot is hoping the Drift W1 will appeal to commuters who’d rather not sit in their cars in ever more congested traffic. To be clear, the skates aren’t road-safe. But they might carry someone from the bus station to their home or office (each pair weighs about eight pounds and is sized to slip into a gym bag). “It’s what we call micro mobility,” says Jeff Wu, a marketing manager at Segway Inc. While the Drift W1 isn’t a replacement for a car, it could make the commute more efficient, particularly for someone who doesn’t want to walk a long way.

Demand for small commuter aids—including fold-up scooters and e-bikes—is booming. In North America, sales are growing by 28.4 per cent per year, according to market research company P&S Intelligence. In Canada, entrepreneur John Bitove, founder of the Toronto Raptors, recently announced the launch of Bird Canada, an offshoot of the American startup that rents electric scooters for $1.15 plus 35 cents a minute. That may undercut the value of high-priced W1’s, but both competitors will face other limiting factors. “This is Canada,” says David Grummett, director of communications for Canada’s Motorcycle and Moped Industry Council, “so all micro-mobility options will be of a seasonal nature—unless they start making snow tires for Segways.”

Ninebot is privately owned and keeps sales confidential. But to gauge the W1’s appeal, in 2018 the company released the design idea on crowd-funding platform Indiegogo. Fifteen days later, more than 2,000 people had pledged more than $1 million for a chance to glide into the future.