Segway Owner Claims Chinese Knockoffs Roam U.S. Streets

Segway Inc., maker of the self-balancing “people mover” that has struggled to expand beyond a niche market since its splashy debut 13 years ago, is now taking to suing its growing number of imitators.

The Inmotion transporter, promoted heavily at consumer electronics shows, as well as the WindRunner, Ninebot, FreeGo and Robstep are being targeted in a U.S. trade complaint filed yesterday. Closely held Segway and a firm controlled by inventor Dean Kamen are seeking to halt what they call a “widespread pattern of infringement” by the Chinese manufacturers.

They “duplicate, in some cases extremely closely, the design and operation of these Segway personal transporters,” Segway and Kamen’s Deka Products LP said. The companies “intend their products to largely if not completely mimic Segways’s personal transporters in operation.”

The complaint filed with the U.S. International Trade Commission in Washington lists at least six manufacturers and three distributors that Segway claims are infringing two patents related to the transporter controls, and two for the design of the machines. If Segway wins the case, the government could block the competing products made overseas from the U.S. market.

Millard Jacobs of Laurel Hill, North Carolina, who runs the website, was one of the distributors named. He said in an interview he was told that the makers of the scooters he sells -- Shenzhen Inmotion Technologies Co., Robstep Robot Co. and Ninebot Inc. -- had developed their own technology.

Segway Mad

He said the transporters he sells are smaller than the Segway and half the price -- $2,500 compared to $5,000. They are designed for people who have difficulty in moving on their own and need something small and lightweight, Jacobs said.

“Segway must be mad because they haven’t come out with a smaller transporter for people,” Jacobs said. “I wish they’d come to me, I’d love to promote whatever they have.”

He said Robstep and Inmotion came out with 35-pound transporters and “now you’ve got 20 companies trying to make copies.”

Kamen introduced the Segway in 2001 and began selling it to the public in 2002. He sold the company, which was later bought by Summit Strategic Investments LLC in 2013, according to Bedford, New Hampshire-based Segway’s website.

Segway’s products are popular with police and tour groups, though sales to individual consumers have been hampered by a high price tag and restrictions by cities on where the devices can be driven.

‘Mall Cop’

Jack Zhang, director of international sales for Robstep, said his company was founded by university students who first saw a Segway in the 2009 movie “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” They decided to develop their own product and “finally after three months of hard work with cheap and ugly materials, they made a self-balancing machine.”

“It is not a copy because we didn’t have a machine to study on,” Zhang said in an e-mail. “Just a view in a movie.”

Deka Products is part of Kamen’s Deka Research & Development Corp., which crafts inventions related to mobility, power and water.

The case is In the Matter of Certain Personal Transporters, Complaint No. 3032, U.S. International Trade Commission (Washington).