Autonomous Scooters Aren’t Going Anywhere

Uber’s new division is more about pre-IPO hype

Paris Marx
Jan 24 · 4 min read
Source: Uber

Earlier this week, former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson tweeted that Uber was hiring for a new “Micromobility Robotics” team that would be under its Jump Bikes umbrella — the dockless bike-sharing company it purchased last year to expand its offerings beyond its traditional ride-hailing service.

But let’s be real: you’re never going to see AI-driven bikes and scooters in your city. This is nothing more than a big (and bad) idea the company can sell to investors with little technical expertise as an example of the exciting projects it’s working on for the future, like it’s fledgling autonomous vehicle division and fantastical “flying car” project. Uber doesn’t have profitability, or even a path to achieve it, to show potential investors; they need to sell them on a vision of a future Uber transportation monopoly, and autonomous scooters are just the newest addition to the fantasy.

It’s estimated that dockless scooters last in Bird and Lime fleets for no more than one to two months, on average, but there’s been some indication their lifespans could be as low as two to three weeks. This autonomous project is being pitched as a way to save on charging costs, but it’s hard to see how it would result in cost savings with all the new gadgetry that would be necessary.

According to The Information, a Bird scooter makes an average of $3.65 per ride, but $1.72 is spent on charging costs — mainly for labor — and it seems unlikely autonomous driving would produce significant overall savings. Given the comparatively short lifespans of the scooters, their unit cost would increase with the addition of new cameras, sensors, and the computing power necessary to pilot it to wherever it needs to go to charge. Powering that system would also be a drain on the battery power, requiring more frequent charging.

Dockless scooters last in Bird and Lime fleets for no more than one to two months

And what about the development cost? How many hundreds of engineers with six-figure salaries will have to be hired to develop and continually refine the autonomous system, and how many millions of dollars will that ultimately cost? That investment will have to be earned back by the scooters whose profitability doesn’t yet seem guaranteed — they’re likely making a bit in some cities and losing money in others — and since it’s so easy to start such a service, if companies put prices too high a new player will cannibalize them.

But even if the numbers can be made to work, just think about the technical challenge that would be presented by making something like a bike or scooter balance itself, pick itself up if it falls over, avoid hitting people or objects — it’s just not a project that makes any sense to pursue. This is a likely unworkable technological fix in search of a problem.

Would autonomous bikes and scooters drive on the sidewalk or in bike lanes? Either way, I don’t think they’d be welcome by pedestrians or cyclists — a small vehicle without a driver heading toward them that could hit them or enter their path. And how would they deal with busy sidewalks or bike lanes when people are closely packed together?

I also wouldn’t be surprised if some people kick them over — vandalism is already an issue with these dockless services — and then would they have poles to push themselves back upright? Where will they be stored when they’re not needed?

Don’t hold your breath for autonomous micromobility; I’d be very surprised if you ever see it.

The tech-industry fantasy of autonomous bikes and scooters simply does not work when they encounter the reality of city life. This is simply another unworkable Big Tech solution to try to sell investors on Uber’s IPO in the absence of even a path to profitability, and it’s another example of how technologists will seek out the most extreme technological solution to a problem that has a potentially much easier fix.

If companies want to reduce their charging costs, there are much more low-tech solutions they could pursue. They could negotiate with cities to install charging docks at popular areas — data will show the places people frequent— then give people a small incentive for leaving the bike or scooter at a dock. Similarly, if they’re able to roll out battery swapping, they could provide a small incentive for people who pick up a low-battery bike or scooter and swap out the battery during their trip. Either of these solutions would be cheaper than having people go around to pick up the bikes and scooters to charge them, and would make all the gadgetry and development of autonomous systems unneccessary.

Uber is infamous for its lies: they’ll reduce congestion, car ownership, be a friend to transit — all of which turned out to be false. The prospect of bikes and scooters that drive themselves is just the latest in Uber’s efforts to mislead customers, investors, and government officials about what it can really do, all to keep people excited so they don’t do their due diligence and look at how bad its financials really are. Don’t hold your breath for autonomous micromobility; I’d be very surprised if you ever see it.

Paris Marx

Written by

Socialist, traveller, urbanist. MA Geog, McGill. I write critically about tech and cities, and curate the Radical Urbanist newsletter: http://bit.ly/radurb

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.

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