Shareable electric scooters are a whimsical solution to the last-mile transportation problem. But not all riders are using them responsibly.
Better Engineering Can Tame the Electric Scooter
Sep 17, 2019
by Michael Abrams
That gap is one reason why most American commuters choose driving over public transportation.
“Some set of people would be willing to take transit for much of their journey if they could access it more easily from home and get to work at the end,” said Don MacKenzie, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Seattle in Washington and head of its Sustainable Transportation Lab. “Because if they can’t, they drive.”
When some see a gap, others see an opportunity—and sometimes offer up essentially the same solution at virtually the same time. Think Lyft and Uber, VHS and Betamax, or ac and dc. In 2017, multiple companies began offering electric scooters for rent via a smartphone app. Three companies, Bird, Lime, and Spin, disseminated their wares willy nilly on city sidewalks and streets. Need to cover that last mile between the transit stop and the destination, or go cross-town to meet friends for dinner? Riders could pay a dollar down and 15 cents a minute to zip along at 15 miles per hour.
For those who don’t live in San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, Austin, or the dozens of other cities where the service has popped up, it might be easy to miss out on the scooter explosion. Some commuters discovered these lightweight, electric vehicles were the perfect solution to the last mile (or first mile) issue. The reality of an emissions-free way of getting around, available whenever needed, was seen as a welcome part of greening the way Americans travel.
Not everyone sees scooters that way. For them, the things were an unasked-for nuisance, blocking sidewalks when parked and barreling down on pedestrians when in use. In several cities, shared scooter operations have been banned. And rather than charmed by their intended whimsy, some people react to scooters quite violently. Perhaps as revenge, the scooters have been hot-wired, dismembered, chucked in garbage bins and harbors, and sometimes befouled in most disgusting ways.
Vandalism like that is bad for a business model predicated on leaving the product lying around waiting to be rented. To better serve the customers, thwart the abusers, and disarm the naysayers, the shared scooter will have to change. How companies deploy scooters, how cities incorporate them, and how manufacturers make them, all need better engineering.
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When it comes to futuristic transportation solutions, electric scooters are not the first—or tenth—thing that generally comes to mind. The usual answers are more elaborate, ranging from magnetically levitated trains to sedan-sized helicopters or aerial tramways. Or self-driving cars, which have received billions of dollars of research and development funding and no small amount of hype.
But a car that replaces a human driver with an automated driving system but leaves everything else—including its gasoline-powered internal combustion engine—the same won’t address most automobile-related challenges.
“Our city leaders are realizing that we are at an impasse in terms of climate change, and that the only way we are going to solve the issues of air pollution, global warming, and just excessive congestion on our streets, is by limiting the use of cars,” said Sarah Kaufman, a professor of urban planning at New York University and the associate director of the Rudin Center for Transportation. “A reasonable alternative goes a long way in terms of helping the cause.”
Rent-by-the-minute, dockless electric scooters appeared on the scene due to a confluence of technology trends. The lithium-ion battery packs needed to power the small electric motors became cheap and energy dense thanks to the demands of the laptop computer industry; early generations of batteries would have left riders stranded. Smartphone technology and advanced electronics enables the scooters to differentiate between a customer and a thief, calculate how much to charge for a ride, and signal when it’s time top up its battery. Ride-hailing services such as Uber have inculcated millions of consumers to the idea of flagging down a ride via a phone app.
A service that provides lightweight electric scooters for hire as a substitute for car trips would at first reflection be exactly what city transit agencies would want.
In reality, the scooter sharing services have not been universally welcomed. Companies introduced their service not through a careful roll-out, but by flooding cities with scooters, everywhere at once, without getting permitting from the authorities. It was a publicity stunt, but spreading cheap scooters across a city like so much unasked for mayo is not a way to endear the items to city agencies. The strategy backfired for Bird, Lime, and Spin in San Francisco—the city solved its so-called scooter apocalypse problem by banning all scooter companies but two, Skip and Scoot.
New York City has made it clear that all electric scooters, personal as well as corporate-owned, are illegal and riders are subject to a $500 fine. The law is not often enforced, but any company that tried to distribute shareable scooters across the city would likely see them confiscated.
To avoid the kneejerk backlash from dumping scooters without warning, Ford Motor Co. took the cooperative approach when it introduced the Jelly scooter service to Purdue University’s West Lafayette, Ind., campus.
“That’s why Purdue embraced the Jelly project so well—they were coming to campus in a way, where they were engaged with public safety, engaged in parking, prior to deployment,” said Darcy Bullock, a professor of civil engineering and the director of the Joint Transportation Research Program, who led the project.
“Some cities have figured out over time that, ‘OK, these really aren’t that bad,’ ” said Jeff Lindley, the chief technical officer for the Institute of Transportation Professionals. “They figured out who to talk to, and got some assurances that there really was someone paying attention.”
Lindley’s group is putting together a “Mobility as a Service” initiative to try to determine what works and what doesn’t for cities grappling with scooter inundation. “There is not a model for what’s going on,” Lindley said. “One of the things we’re in the process of trying to do is collect experience from public agency members on how they are managing the advent of scooters.”
The task force will try to resolve some of the basic questions that surround scooter use: Where should they be allowed? How will they be recharged? Who’s responsible for moving parked scooters to be closer to potential customers? “Are we going to wind up with all the scooters sitting in one place with people tripping over them?” Lindley asked. “Are they allowed on the sidewalk or are they supposed to be on the street?”
Carving out dedicated spaces for the scooters is a contentious topic. Street or sidewalk real estate is at a premium in cities, and many car owners balk at the idea of giving away public space—or public parking spaces—to scooters. But when the goal is to reduce the use of cars as much as possible, it makes sense to do just that.
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“If you have eight or ten scooters where a car was, you’re making better use of that space, serving more people for a more environmentally sound mode,” Kaufman said.
Another challenge that needs to be addressed is backend pollution. For instance, when a scooter’s battery runs down, someone—usually a contractor—must drive to collect it and take it to a charger.
“I suspect the contractors driving around to charge and redistribute them is nontrivial,” MacKenzie said. “Having a free-for-all for contractors is much less efficient than optimized routing. There’s all kinds of stuff from the freight industry and logistics that I suspect are not being applied.”
And obviously, the electricity used to recharge the batteries may come from power plants.
In addition to these logistical questions, there are basic issues of rider safety. In one study conducted by the Austin, Tex., public health department, 271 persons with potential e-scooters-related injuries were reported to the county emergency medical service over a three month period last fall. Nearly half had injuries to the head; 14 percent of all injured riders were hospitalized. “Our calculations show that there were 20 individuals injured per 100,000 e-scooter trips taken during the study period,” the report stated.
For automobiles, the rate is less than one injury per 100,000 trips.
The Longer Haul
Working out the logistics is a major hurdle, but another basic challenge is that the hardware needs to be improved.
“We looked at some of the stuff people are using and we just scratch our heads,” said David Michael, the director of mechanical engineering for Superpedestrian, a transportation robotics company in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s a typical startup: someone sees an opportunity, they don’t care about the hardware. They use the cheapest thing they can find. It might be a great business idea, but it’s still crappy hardware.”
Service providers Bird and Spin rent out Xiaomi Mi electric scooters, which retail for under $500. Other companies use different brands, but most are built in China. While they might be suited for personal use, it is unlikely the machines were designed for the constant wear and tear they get from being shared by one rider after another, all day long. The typically short use life of the scooters, measured in months, raises an issue of proper disposal of the batteries and electronics, and whether the emissions “embedded” in their manufacture could outweigh the pollution averted through electric powered mobility.
“I don’t know what the numbers are with micro-mobility vehicles,” MacKenzie said, “but given how short their life is, it could be a relatively larger fraction of the total.”
Superpedestrian set out to solve the problem of durability and more with its own scooter offering. For one thing, the company can wirelessly update their scooters’ firmware. They can also inform the operating company what is starting to go wrong—or has gone wrong—through predictive diagnostics so that a failing scooter can be quickly fixed.
They’ve also tried their best to make invulnerable scooters. “We’ve done a lot to make casual vandalism very difficult,” Michael said.
To that end, Michael’s team drew up a list of pain points and addressed them one by one. They’ve minimized the number of exposed screws, replacing them with rivets where possible. They’ve hidden the brake cables, increased the size of the wheels—making potholes less jarring—and added a second brake. The scooters also have geofencing, which uses GPS and other location technology to restrict use beyond preset boundaries, and will charge riders who don’t park in a designated area.
And as one might expect for a Massachusetts-based company, Superpedestrian designed its scooters to survive bad weather.
A longer-lasting scooter is, needless to say, better for the world and better for profits. “We are certainly pitching the idea that our scooters will last three to four times longer than what we’re seeing now,” Michael said. Other companies are achieving greater longevity with other tactics.
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“Scoot was the first company on the globe to install an integrated lock on its full fleet of Kick scooters and the lock has been working extremely well,” said Cait Dooley, vehicle product manager for Scoot, which was purchased by Bird in June. “Loss rates with the lock are so low that we now project a Kick will be used for a year before it is lost or decommissioned.”
Regardless of how long any single scooter will last, it’s all but certain that they are here to stay.
“The shared mobility scooter, bike share, Uber and Lyft—I don’t think that’s going away,” Lindley said. “There are definite benefits to what’s happening and I think we can figure out the right way to have all those things coexist.”
Michael Abrams is a technology writer based in Westfield, N.J.