Can the electric scooter grow up?

E-scooters are used for only about one-thousandth of all trips made in the world's cities. PHOTO: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP

MASSACHUSETTS (BLOOMBERG) - At first, it seemed as though nothing could go wrong. When dockless shared electric scooters began showing up on the streets of the world's cities in 2017, techies, baristas and 20something daredevils hopped on, confident they were tilting against two looming threats - urban congestion and climate change.

The future of scootering seemed so bright that the valuation of the largest manufacturer, Bird, went from US$300 million (S$417 million) in March 2018 to US$2 billion three months later.

But Bird's earliest scooters were so flimsy that, in one 2018 study, their average lifespan on the streets of Louisville, Kentucky, was just 28.8 days - a finding disputed by Bird.

Reports of scooter battery fires and brake failures across scooter brands also hit the news.

Today, the scooter industry encompasses more than 200 brands, but it is still shadowed by a bad reputation.

Scooter operators are frequently banned from cities. In January, for instance, Miami kicked out five of the seven companies operating in the city. In Manhattan, shared scooters are banned.

Yet, e-scooters are used for only about one-thousandth of all trips made in the world's cities, according to McKinsey & Co. The global consulting giant has predicted that by 2030, micromobility - think bikes, mopeds, e-bikes and scooters - will triple in popularity to sustain a US$500 billion industry.

Can the scooter grow up and meet that economic promise?

Boston brand Superpedestrian is trying to make it happen, by focusing on safety. It has put nine years of research into making what has been called "the Volvo of scooters" and recently raised US$125 million in funding to enhance its technology.

And by year's end, in several American and European cities, including San Diego, Rome and Madrid, thousands of Superpedestrian scooters will come equipped with a Pedestrian Defense artificial-intelligence system. This software can instantly stop the vehicle's engine if the rider hops up onto a kerb, starts slaloming wildly or travels up a one-way street. Additional gadgetry will self-check 140 components to ascertain if, say, the battery is at risk of igniting or if the throttle is stuck.

No other scooter integrates such a suite of safety features, says Mr Augustin Friedel, an independent industry analyst and mobility expert based in Germany.

Weighing in at about 27kg apiece - a typical, first-generation scooter weighed between 13kg and 23kg - Superpedestrian scooters are inordinately bulky, with a thick stem and solid metal frame. Built with a long wheelbase and a low centre of gravity, they are engineered to roll smoothly, without the shimmying and shaking that plagues some scooters at speed.

Thousands of Superpedestrian scooters will come equipped with a Pedestrian Defense artificial-intelligence system. PHOTO: SUPERPEDESTRIAN/TWITTER

And while nearly all scooter companies buy their vehicles from a third-party manufacturer such as Segway or Japanese company Okai, Superpedestrian designs its hardware in-house. It has no plans to sell its scooters directly to consumers.

The label was born in 2013, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the company's founder and chief executive Assaf Biderman, an Israeli immigrant, is the associate director of the Senseable City Lab.

With more people moving to the world's cities, he says "we're going to see a three times increase" in demand for personal mobility by 2050. The streets, he contends, are facing unprecedented demand, and the answer lies in small, nimble and low-cost electric vehicles.

In 2013, he introduced a US$1,500 motorised wheel that a cyclist could attach to the back of a bike, to fortify pedalling with electric power as sensors on the wheel collected data on air pollution, congestion and road conditions. The Copenhagen Wheel, as it was known, is no longer being produced.

In 2017, he looked at the early shared scooters and saw opportunity. "The demand was incredible," he says, "but the execution was Wild West. And the problems 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 learnt how to become a scooter operator, not the other way around."

Today, Superpedestrian regularly hosts classes on scooter safety. It has helped fund a protected bikeway in Los Angeles and brought on a seasoned policy director, Mr Paul Steely White, to help scooters make peace with the urban ecosystem.

Mr White, once the director of the New York City-based advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, is trying to bring what he calls "an urban planning culture" to scootering. "Public space is sacred and we can't grow unless cities let us grow."

Meanwhile, scootering is getting a boost from the pandemic. Transit use is still below pre-pandemic levels in most cities worldwide and scooter users are travelling longer distances. Bird has reported that in 2021, its average trip length leapt 58 per cent. In Los Angeles, the average ride was 2.3km.

It is unclear how much Superpedestrian can profit from its safety push, though. Its innovations may just go nearly unnoticed amid an industry-wide scramble to wow consumers with cutting-edge safety features. For example, Bird now has its own suite of precision-parking and component-checking hardware.

But there is a bigger problem for Superpedestrian: There is no data that proves scooter safety features mitigate accidents and it is clear they do not address scootering's biggest menace - cars, which have been involved in 24 of the 30 scooter fatalities known to have happened in the US (as of 2021).

Mr White acknowledges the threat of cars, but defends his company's safety features. "If we are not doing our job to protect riders and pedestrians, how can we expect the city to do theirs? If people think scooters are inherently dangerous, then there will be insufficient political will, and ridership, to win protected bike lanes and other necessary safety infrastructure."

For now, scooter use is confined to a demographic willing to tango with fast-moving vehicles. While older riders have been catching on of late, McKinsey's statistics show that, among adults aged over 29, scooter use declines sharply and steadily by age group.

But there are hints that urban infrastructure may be poised to undergo a phase shift and become more friendly to slow-moving micros. Cities have, for instance, hosted "open street" events in recent years, excluding cars from the pavement.

Another new twist is congestion pricing.

By the end of next year, New York City's Metropolitan Transportation Authority may begin charging vehicles a steep fee, probably between US$9 and US$23, to drive south of 60th Street in Manhattan. San Francisco and Los Angeles also are considering similar measures, and the tactic has already thinned traffic - and made the streets safer - in cities like Singapore and Stockholm.

Industry analyst Horace Dediu believes that, in time, micromobility will attain critical mass, as other modes of transit have already done, and that infrastructure will come as the user base grows. "I'm confident, given the history, that we'll see things like (safer) roadways for micromobility vehicles."

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