- There are 200 brands of electric scooters
- The E- scooter industry has a bad reputation among common people.
- E-scooters are used for only about one one-thousandth of all trips made in the world’s cities.
At first, E-scooters were doing well in the industry. Dockless shared electric scooters began to come on the streets of the world’s cities in 2017, and the vanguard like techies, baristas, and twentysomething daredevils started believing confidently that they were solving two major problems which were urban crowding and climate change.
The future of scootering seemed so bright that the valuation of the largest manufacturer, Bird, went from $300 million to $2 billion in three months, a very huge profit, even by Silicon Valley standards.
But Bird’s earliest scooters were so light and breakable that, their average life span on the streets of Louisville, Kentucky, was just 28.8 days. Reports of scooter battery fires and brake failures across scooter brands began to start hitting the news. In August 2018, Bird’s CEO, Travis VanderZanden, made a very unusual move by selling off tens of millions of dollars worth of his company’s stock.
The scooter industry has over 200 brands, but it is still seen with a bad reputation. scooter-related injuries are so frequent among riders that several law firms offer websites targeting prospective e-scooter users. Scooter operators are frequently banned from cities, for example, Miami removed five of the seven companies operating in the city, and Manhattan has banned shared scooters. Paris deputy mayor David Belliard last year joined a number of other city leaders in scooter hate when he said to “get rid of them completely.”
Even after all the attention they get, e-scooters are used for only about one one-thousandth of all trips made in the world’s cities. The global consulting giant McKinsey & Co has predicted that by 2030, micromobility like think bikes, mopeds, e-bikes, and scooters will triple in popularity to hold a $500 billion industry.
A Boston brand is trying hard to make it happen, by focusing on safety. Superpedestrian has put nine years of research into making “the Volvo of scooters.” It recently raised $125 million in funding to enhance its technology. And by year’s end, in several U.S. and European cities, including San Diego, Rome, and Madrid, thousands of Superpedestrian scooters will come equipped with a Pedestrian Defense AI system.
This software can instantly stop the vehicle’s engine if the rider goes out of control, starts to lose the handle, or travels up a one-way street. Additional features will alert headquarters if a rider parks more than 10 centimeters outside a designated area and will self-check 140 components to discover. No other scooter has assembled such high measures of safety features, said an independent industry analyst and mobility expert based in Germany, Augustin Friedel
Superpedestrian scooters are different, weighing 60 pounds per piece, they’re extremely bulky, with a thick stem and solid metal frame. Built with a long wheelbase and a low center of gravity, they’re engineered to roll smoothly, without the slipping and shaking that affects some scooters at speed as a typical, first-generation scooter can be weighed between 30 and 50 pounds. Nearly all scooter companies buy their vehicles from a third-party manufacturer such as Segway or Okai, a Japanese company, Superpedestrian designs its hardware itself, trying to become a key component in the shared scooter space. As the company has no plans to sell its scooters directly to consumers.
Part of Superpedestrian’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, office functions as a testing center where engineers load up to 1,000 pounds on top of test scooters, putting them to a million artificial potholes. There is also a water sink tank, in which the scooters are put into salt water to see if they would sink or not, Superpedestrian’s director of product management, Ilya Sinelnikov confirmed.
Superpedestrian was made in 2013, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the company’s founder and CEO, Assaf Biderman, an Israeli immigrant, became the associate director of the Senseable City Lab. Biderman has spent nearly 20 years working on a global problem that is with more people moving to the world’s cities we’re going to see a 3x increase in demand for personal mobility by 2050.
Biderman believes that small, light, low-cost electric vehicles can solve the issue. In 2013, he introduced a $1,500 motorized wheel that a cyclist could attach to the back of a bike, to increase pedaling with electric power as sensors on the wheel collected data on air pollution, crowding, and road conditions.
The Copenhagen Wheel, as it was known, is no longer being produced. “The demand was incredible but the execution was Wild West. And the problems that scooters were having — fires and brake failures — were exactly what our technology was made to address. We’re an engineering company, a robotics and automation specialist, that learned how to become a scooter operator, not the other way around.” He said.
Superpedestrian regularly keeps classes on scooter safety. It has helped fund a protected bikeway in Los Angeles, and it’s brought on a seasoned policy director, Paul Steely White, to help scooters make peace with the urban ecosystem. “some early companies used cities’ streets as a Petri dish. Since micromobility is new, norms haven’t been established yet. In an urban planning culture, public space is sacred and we can’t grow unless cities let us grow.” He said
Scootering is getting a boost from the coronavirus. Its use is still below pre-pandemic levels in most cities worldwide, and scooter users are traveling longer distances. Bird has reported that in 2021, its average trip length leaped 58%. In Los Angeles, the average ride was 1.4 miles.
Superpedestrian innovations may just go unnoticed due to an industry-wide rush to provide consumers with basic safety features. Bird now has its own group of precision-parking and component-checking hardware, and at least four scooter companies like Tier, Wheels, Wind, and Dott have provided folding helmets added to their steering columns.
The problem is that there is no data that proves scooter safety features stop accidents and that they don’t address scootering’s biggest problem that are cars, which have been involved in 24 of the 30 scooter fatalities known to have happened in the US (as of 2021).
David Zipper says “their appeal to city transportation officials who want to minimize complaints about, say, scooters being left on the sidewalk. It’s not a life-or-death matter. The real threat is that you’ll be hit by somebody in a four-ton SUV going 45 miles an hour.”
In both San Diego and Chicago this year, Superpedestrian got the municipal allowance to distribute scooters but the program is currently stopped because of the scooter companies that didn’t get a license like Bird in San Diego, bird, and Helbiz in Chicago. Superpedestrian eventually will put its scooters out on the street, but it’s unclear when.
Horace Dediu, an industry analyst widely known as “the father of micro-mobility,” doesn’t like the light quality of today’s tenders and their focus on safety features. McKinsey’s statistics show that, among adults over 29, scooter use reduces sharply and steadily by age group. During the pandemic, Zipper points out, numerous cities have hosted “ open street” events, excluding cars from the streets.
London has created 72 “ low-traffic neighborhoods” using planters and concrete posts to differentiate automobiles. “All of this has been wildly popular,” Zipper says. “Car owners may want to revert to the auto-centric status quo, post-pandemic but at least in big cities I don’t see them succeeding.”
By the end of next year, New York City’s MTA may begin charging vehicles a fee, probably between $9 and $23. San Francisco and Los Angeles also are considering similar measures, and the pricing has already reduced traffic and made the streets safer in cities like Singapore and Stockholm.
Dediu believes that in some time micromobility will attain huge mass, as other modes of transportation have already done, and that infrastructure will come as the user base grows. “We didn’t build airports and then have airplanes show up, I’m confident, given the history, that we’ll see things like more safe roadways for transportation,” He said.
At Superpedestrian, Assaf Biderman is trying to fasten the scooter’s arrival moment. “The robotics and the AI, have finally become strong and affordable enough.”. Still, Superpedestrian is just one brand in a crowded industry. And there’s no guarantee that scooters will be the future of transportation. For even another small e-vehicle could come along and soon end them. It could be the quadricycle, the e-skateboard, or the e-cargo bike.