• Mohit Kalra

E-Scooter- Future of Micro-Mobility

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

What would an average American feel when told that the car stranded in a jam beside him is amongst the 46 percentile of cars that are within 3 miles from their respective homes on a grocery run? Enraged at first, but soon the realization will hit. Perhaps the very same ‘average American’ is also within 3 miles from his/her home on a grocery run!

To tackle this very problem of micro-mobility and the incessant jams on the larger picture, E-scooters were envisioned as a lifesaver. But as with the fate of the electric cars, they also were sent packing in the early 2000s; reasons included the heavy Lead-Acid batteries, took forever to charge, and provided a mileage which was aptly termed as ‘nightmare’.

Remember ‘Razor’, a kick scooter which saw immense popularity but with the launch of an electric version in the year 2003, the tiny little micro mobile was not able to capitalize and until recently was just termed as a toy.

Things took a turn for good with the arrival of lithium-ion batteries and the subsequent reduction in costs of the same. In the year 2017, a son of a public transport operator, Travis VanderZanden, unleashed on the city roads, ‘Bird E-Scooter’, the very form of micro-mobility which led governments to take notice and include plans for the same in designing and planning the next era of the smart cities.

E-Scooters have become quite popular in a short span of time, starting with full thrust at the onset of Bird in the year 2017, which has also resulted in an unbelievably short period taken by E-Scooter start-ups to achieve the Unicorn status. More than two billion dollars each have been invested in just two companies - Lime and Bird. In a series D funding Bird raised $275 million at $2.5 billion in 2019 with Lime raising $400 million at a valuation which stood at $2.4 billion. The buck doesn’t stop here; there are at least a half a dozen start-ups that are trying to make big in the Scooter-as-a-service segment.

There are a lot of compelling factors driving the E-Scooter frenzy, like solving a last-mile connectivity puzzle, the availability of supporting tech, the laziness of people, environmental concerns, and the dream of building smarter cities (with scarce urban space). This frenzy has resulted in a technological spiral with more and more companies willing to aligned themselves with the E-Scooter market; through standalone app creation, software up-gradation, improvements in the GPS systems installed to name a few.

One of the biggest names in the ride-hailing businesses made an investment in an e-scooter startup in may this year as part of the deal that would make them the market leaders in the e-scooter mobility industry. The market is touted to touch $41.98 billion by the year 2030 with a CAGR of 8.5% as valued by a report by Grand View Research Inc. This figure doesn’t seem unreal, as there were almost 5 million E-Scooters sold in the year 2018 itself. A projection by Bekryl, also puts the number of E-Scooters on the road in 2028 at a whopping 129 million.

Adding more weight to the projections which peg the segment to witness tremendous growth is the fact that Ford owned Spin has launched internationally; Germany’s Cologne being the first recipient of the service with Dortmund and Essen following next. With Covid-19 slowing down the ride-hailing services like Uber, Didi Chuxing, it is expected of the micro-mobility segment to gain a larger share of the transport pie; Spin’s increase in new users by 34% week-on-week since April and a 44% increase in ride duration across various US cities is a bold testament to the projections.

The rise of E-Scooters as preferred mode of micro-mobility is inevitable no matter how much the government across the US states try to reason against it on the grounds of increased pedestrians accidents owing to the 15-25 mile/hr speed scooters reach, riding on the sidewalks, broken teeth, etc; the fact remains Americans love them. It is not common for any new micro-mobility solution to clock 84 million trips cumulatively in a calendar year and out of which 38.5 million trips being taken on a Scooter is a dream run; exclaimed by a Nacto Report.

An E-Scooter (the popular version that looks like below) is a class of vehicle that is personal, electric two-wheeler that is driven in standing position without any seat. There are various close cousins of the E-Scooter; closer cousins like Segway or more distant ones like Hoverboard. However, the underlying technology behind them can be traced to lie somewhere in between electric-assisted bicycles and fully electric scooters (two-seaters).

Apart from the normal anatomy of E-Scooters containing handlebars, stem, footboard, suspensions, and breaks, the most crucial part is played by an electric motor- A BLDC. A Brushless DC (BLDC) motors are newer a technology that is better than brushed motors. BLDC motors are more efficient, have better power-to-weight, and are more durable. Most quality electric scooters will have them.

Brushed motors are an older form of motor technology that has mechanical brushes that drag along the inside of the motor to alternatively power different coil phases. In a BLDC, this mechanical component is replaced by digital switching circuitry that alternatively powers different coils in the motor.

One can see that there are so many close competing technologies straight from the automobile or hardware design segment itself. The same is evident from the decent number of IP litigations in the past three years in the rental scooter and Segway space. Asian companies like Honda have long drawn history of technology development from the hardware point-of-view in the electric-scooter area. Many Scooters operating in the US are imported from China and Japan. However, it would be quite a narrow view to look at these scooters from only an automobile or design perspective as there are a lot of supporting technologies involved in making Scooter-as-a-service a reality.

When the market is slated to be valued at $200-300 billion USD by 2030 alone in the US, it is not hard to imagine various companies scrambling to race ahead with defining patents in the area of their specialties. The patent landscape becomes more complicated when the European and Chinese markets come into the picture with being valued at $100-$150 billion USD and $30-$50 Billion USD, respectively.

A mini patent landscape analysis of scooter technology was conducted by Lumenci on scooter-related technologies. Some of the supporting technologies that are related to scooter tech are vehicle identification, position, tracking, charging, sensors, driver interactions, sensors, safety management, smart control, vehicle release mechanisms, and interaction with external systems like traffic and charging stations. Smart control and vehicle release control specifically protect the vehicle from being stolen and enable convenient access to vehicles.

Lumenci has done a broad level categorization of scooter technology in these technological areas. The table below lists the various numbers of patent applications and publications filed under each category.

Key Assignees in the area of Scooters that are driven in standing positions are – Hangzhou Chic Intelligent, Deka Products, Razor USA, and Segway Inc.

Despite many past innovations, there are a lot of practical problems that this industry is facing. For example, a large problem is the inability of Scooters to charge them. Scooters are required to be collected by someone and charged and then replaced. In controlled environments like warehouses or homes, robots have been able to autonomously guide themselves towards charging stations for self-service. Sooner or later, this self-charging tech will be implemented in these scooters when a good number of public charging stations are made available.

Another charging related concern is charging time. With many parallel innovations happening in battery technology, then a reduction in the charging cycle would inevitably occur. If that does not occur, in the foreseeable future modular battery pouches like Tesla power banks would make the off-road time for battery dependant scooters quite small.

Safety has been a very large concern, as well as a scooter’s adaptability to the weather or specific use cases like last-mile deliveries. A significant concern comes out from the riding of the E-Scooters on the sidewalks. Companies are constantly trying to up the ante on the closest competitors and in lieu of the same Lime and the City of San Jose have joined hands together. They have come together with a technology to detect and reduce riding on the sidewalks. The technology involves detecting the vibrations from the riding surface using Lime’s statistical model based on AI with 95% accuracy. “We began developing sidewalk detection over a year ago as a commitment to the safety of the communities we quickly became a part of,” said Nick Shapiro, Lime’s Head of Trust and Safety. “We know that micro-mobility can only be successful if riders and communities feel safe, and at Lime, we’re dedicated to advancing safety for all.” These are certain obvious open challenges that will be solved soon by drawing parallels from similar industries or by newer innovations.

In the future, with the advancement of 5G and massive machine-type communications, a large number of futuristic use cases would also open up using scooters as a smart consumer device that would interact with other intelligent personal devices. Perhaps, in the future, you may have to earn your right to unlock a scooter by walking at least a few miles that are vouched by your smartwatch and vetted by your insurer.

These start-ups are building on the idea of a centralized Platform-as-a-service model which worked well for the Ubers and Amazons of the world. Unfortunately, with the current wave of decentralization riding on the back of blockchain technology, such centralized businesses may become too siloed, especially when the idea itself is to build something like a smart city. For every centralized platform that makes the unreasonable amount of money out of the service, a blockchain-based decentralized variant can exist, at least theoretically.

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