Is filling the sidewalks with malfunctioning hardware an apotheosis of what electric scooters can do? Will it remain a toy for teens, or is it going to shape our cities? Read the article to get a glimpse into the future of transportation.
Taking a broad view
Santa Monica based startup Bird was founded in 2017 and in just 15 months was valued over $1B. Investors got overwhelmed with the rate of revenue growth right after product release and showered scooter companies with funding. As new transport appeared on the streets of California, people immediately adopted the service, exposing how empty was the niche.
In a matter of months, the eScooter industry released hundreds of vehicles in the cities, welcoming everyone with a driving license. VCs saw lucrative unit-economics, CEOs saw a way to “make the world a better place” and users saw a new effective way to get from point A to point B. It wouldn’t be a real startup story if everything went smooth, and tremendous volumes of social backlash got unleashed due to irresponsible parking practice and scooter accidents.
Let’s take a look at the big picture of this phenomenon to understand the place of eScooter in humanity timeline and to see what’s waiting for our cities in the future.
Looking through the prism of history
The best way to look at the development transport is to see how other technology rolled out 100 years ago. Automobiles.
When cars just started getting popular on the streets of 1910s-1920s cities, they were considered to be dangerous intruders. The street was moving with a maximum speed of 8 km/h since horses, omnibuses and people had to move in a dense flow together. Playground for children didn’t exist as a thing, so it was normal for kids to play in the middle of a street, where automobiles were passing now.
There were thousands of accidents so no wonder why people were eager to minimise this traffic. One of the soft examples was Cincinnati residents limiting car speed to 40km/h (55% of Model T speed). Some activists were even requesting the 25km/h limit, the same limit as the majority of eScooters has now.
There was no end to attempts of making streets even slower and safer — Detroit had the speed limit of 8 km/h until the dedicated regulation was rolled out in 1909.
In addition to the danger created by speeding drivers, parking became another source of chaos. Neither high-rise buildings had specific parking lots, nor there were any laws or common parking etiquette. Drivers were stopping in front of the building or on the intersection, leaving cars blocking the street for hours.
Chances of getting cars banned increased, so motorists, wealthy car owners and car dealers united under the common interest. Among other things, their information campaigns were educating people on ways to cross the street safely and normalising the idea that cars are the new owners of streets.
Speeding, accidents, parking… Problems were similar to what we experience now. The question is, how much better is the scooter?
What’s good about eScooters arrival comparing to cars?
We have a significant infrastructure base. We don’t have to pour billions of dollars into gigantic interchanges. We don’t have to sacrifice additional hectares of public space for parking. We don’t have to engage in some crazy terra-forming activity (at least on this planet). What we do have to do is to expand the bike lanes.
Scooterists will never feel safe on the city roads among cars and pedestrians will never feel safe among the scooters. Currently, a lot of streets in the US and Europe are built just for cars, having tiny sidewalks and no protected bike lanes.
The city of San Francisco has approximately 442,000 publicly-available parking spots and only 1,250 electric scooters. Really?
How green are the scooters? (Spoiler: very green)
We all care about ecology, and our governments regularly announce bright sustainability goals for some 2030s, right? If these are not just words, maybe it’s time for more government action in cities?
Typical scooter ride is below 3,2 km, so let’s take 3km as our distance. Siemens Combino tram in operation in Potsdam, Germany, requires 1,84kWh/km, regenerative braking included. Therefore, 3km ride takes 5520Wh. Average tram occupancy in the UK is 53 passengers.
-> 3km x 1840Wh/km /53 passengers = 104,2Wh/passenger/3km.
Xiaomi M365 — one of the most popular scooters in the world has a battery of 280Wh and maximal range 30km. Bearing in mind that users don’t always weigh 60kg and drive perfectly flat roads, we can discount range to 25km.
->3km x 280Wh/25km=33,6Wh/passenger/3km
Electric kick-scooters are three times more energy-efficient than trams.
They are also 18 times more efficient than Tesla Model S
with 621,9Wh for 3km… We still need advanced public transportation, but when policymakers are going to redivide limited road space between sidewalks, tram lanes, bike lanes and roads, they should know what type of decision to make.
Collaboration with the government
New scooter companies are more agile and sensitive towards public opinion. They learned the lesson from Travis Kalanick and now are carefully listening to the public opinion, acting well with city administrations.
In his open letter “Save our sidewalks” CEO of Bird pledges to contribute $1 per vehicle per day to city governments which in own turn have to invest the money in bike lanes and promotion of safe riding. The letter is addressing CEOs of competing scooter companies, so there is a good chance we will see more contributions to city ecosystems. One month of 10,000 scooters could potentially generate enough funds to build up to give municipality 20 miles of well-protected bike lanes.
Lyft is trying to reduce the number of cars on the roads by providing significant discounts to people travelling from and to mass transit hubs. Additionally, it locates a third of its vehicles in zones with low-income and inadequate public transportation.
Lime is asking users to rate how well each scooter is parked based on photos that are obligatory to submit when ending the ride. It also offers subsidised trips through its LimeAccess programme aimed at low-income individuals.
Electric scooters are not only a new page in the book of transportation. They are a new page in a relationship between the government and tech companies. Hence, we should expect an unprecedented level of cooperation.
Being aware of Chinese problems with trash bikes, scooter companies promise to pick up and maintain scooters on a daily basis. Another of their promise is not to increase the number of vehicles unless they are used more than three times a day.
It should be a win-win game
At first glance, these activities may seem to be too altruistic, but if you look from the right perspective, you’ll see that each of them is a step on the way to make even more money.
And this is great: cities win — consumers win — companies win.
Although users love using eScooter services and there are clear signs that they are improving the life of cities, there still may be plenty of problems to overcome. One of the more ridiculous examples may happen in Germany, where the Light Electric Vehicle bill that is under development states that only e-scooters with a maximum speed of 20km/h will be legal to use. New regulation may be a significant threat to scooter-sharing companies because personal models like Xiaomi M365 can be “unlocked” to reach the speed of 30km/h. Police are not going to measure the speed, but consumers will tend to shift to faster personal scooters.
The ultimate goal of eScooter companies in the long term is to get to the point where 50% of all commutes in the city involve their vehicles. The city of Copenhagen established a similar goal with bicycles for 2025 but bearing in mind unprecedented speed with which the technology is spreading over the globe, we should expect it sooner than later. In next couple of years we are going to see massive adoption of the electric scooter as transportation class, and before becoming truly popular, scooters have to evolve.
Electric scooters roadmap (image at the bottom)
Transportation is an exciting new domain for startups with development difficult to predict, but let’s turn on the fantasy for two minutes. Bear in mind that a lot of points on the list depend on that one Public Policy Manager in each of competing startups and his/her negotiation skills.
•eScooter Black. Users with higher purchasing power always look for more comfort, better performance or a better look. So companies may introduce new vehicles with more elegant design, more sizeable battery storage, higher speed on the hills and the same maximum speed. A slightly better option, similar to smartphone storage upgrade.
•Hardware improvements: The majority of scooters we see now are rather an MVP. Consumer products that were quickly adapted the needs of the new business model. Businesses need more durable and efficient vehicles, so updated, custom-made models that will be released next spring will have solutions to many existing problems:
1) Improved range with bigger batteries to reduce the need to charge scooter during the day
2) Dedicated microcontrollers instead of elements from prototyping kits
3) Excessive engine power for models used in not-that-flat cities
4) Turning lights, because scooter riders risk falling while signalling a turn with hand
5) No foldable design to increase durability
6) Adjustable height
•After the cold winter, scooter companies double their efforts in attracting lower-income car owners through targeted ads and websites showing how much money (and clean air) can they save with electric scooters based on the selected route.
•Indicating in the app how much CO2 a user saved is a must for every company.
•Photo of scooters last known location can significantly speed up search process for users.
•Little problem with chargers: They will disappear. As Haje Jan Kamps outlined in his beautiful unit-economics model, chargers (or juicers) are the most significant cost and the obstacle to thicker margins.
This concept doesn’t work even if we don’t go into finance stuff. Scooters are very green, but if they are required to be transported for charging on a van or SUV that burns gasoline, probably they aren’t that green. Fewer people will have side income sources, but more people will have full-time jobs. See below.
•New solution — swappable batteries.
It means incredibly high speed and low cost of getting a scooter 100% charged. The model can be implemented in two ways. First — Gogoro-electric-mopeds style with detachable batteries and ATM-sized charging stations. Second — Telepod scooters style, where dedicated full-time employees are driving the city installing fresh batteries in scooters. Gogoro model makes the range of a scooter practically infinite, while Telepod has a low risk of battery theft.
Just like people don’t like to leave home having smartphone battery at 65%, they don’t like using the scooter with half-empty battery. You already can buy scooters with easily detachable batteries, but even in Asia, the full potential of functionality is not utilised yet.
•Since we’ve got cool battery packs, why not to use this massive power bank to charge the phone?
•Somewhere here Segway city tours will turn into eScooter city tours.
•Etiquette between eScooters and pedestrians will slowly develop. Currently, there is no set of rules, no manifesto, no common sense, but we can expect it soon.
Part of the solution: Lime is asking its riders to take a photo to verify that the scooter is parked in an appropriate spot at the end of a ride. Using data from submitted parking photos or internal crash reports, Lime and other companies may target specific users with preventive messages. But eventually, the most significant changes should happen in our heads.
•If eScooters are being promoted as a replacement for cars/public transportation, then we can easily imagine someone using the service 12 times a week, which will result in $2500 a year. Doesn’t it make sense for a person to buy a personal vehicle for $400?
It does, at this price point. Are scooter companies able to make their service literally six times better? No, but they can try. And they can explore new pricing plans.
•Not without “inspiration” from city administrations, new pricing plans emerge. Pricing is a place where each company can differentiate itself, whether it is offering a 3-month unlimited subscription, 150 rides or 300km.
•Following automobile industry trends, Xiaomi and Huawei — manufacturing companies with strong brands, are going to launch similar scooter-sharing services. This move will require a response from already “classical” scooter startups.
•Winter. It will be difficult for eScooters to significantly decrease car ownership if they aren’t available during harsh weather. Will scooter companies contribute to cleaning bike lanes? Are users okay with driving such vehicle during -2°C?
It is obviously in the interest of scooter companies to run the service in winter, but how to manage this? We are talking about the global shift in transportation during the next ten years. Should city administrations release additional buses on roads during the winter, when people who used to commute on scooters will have no comfortable way to get to work? In the vision for a new mode of transportation, this problem is to be solved.
•And no, ride-sharing eScooters won’t have solar panels.
• According to the forecast of Andrew Chen from a16z, scooter apps may become for urban transportation what Google Search is for the
Internet — a starting point that can charge businesses for traffic.
Companies, essentially ruling the traffic, can find additional income source in useful location-based ads or other services. Depending on which company will be more successful in supporting public transportation, they will start selling tickets in the app.
•The euphoria around scooters slowly fades away.
•Cyclists continue hating scooterists, but not more than car drivers
•Swarm. Increasing numbers of people are going to drive limited bike lanes. To reduce the risk of collision with other scooters, a software algorithm may be implemented. It would take partial control of scooters driving near each other, arranging their position and speed for maximal safety and comfort. It can’t be called a self-driving thing, but in its assistance it will be able to make micro-turns or slow down by a couple km/h, synchronising with nearby vehicles, coordinating position with RFID or Bluetooth.
•New regulation says people with CAR driving license can ride scooters on the roads. Upgraded replaceable batteries allow scooters to speed up to 50km/h in specific zones limited by their GPS. Swarm algorithm will enable scooterists to drive together to increase visibility and safety.
•Specific scooter driving license is introduced lowering the barrier for people to drive on the roads. Everyone still has to know all the traffic rules.
Electric scooters, whether personal or shared, are a significant shift in transportation. Something that initially looked like a toy is going to shape the future of cities, our behaviour and technology. Envisioned by the science fiction authors new degree of personal mobility is coming to reality.
With mostly identical vehicles made on the same factory (photo) and the same pricing policy, scooter companies are now in perfect competition. So the war will go on smoother user experience and cooperation with cities. What we observe now is just the birth of the market. In 2019 we are going to see each startup figuring out its niche and customers it’s going to approach.
Bird, Lime, Spin, Spot, Uber, Lyft, Taxify and many more — they all still have to overcome plenty of obstacles on the way to revolutionise urban transportation, before scooters start to transport billions of people, sharing the streets of green, healthy, non-auto-centric cities with bicycles, buses and light rail.
P.S. Eventually, you should be able to edit photos within the scooter app.
P.P.S. Want more insights about scooter sharing? Check my fresh article about the future of Scooter Operations Management.