Are Electric Scooters the Future? How Do They Actually Work?
If you’re a particular age, then you might have memories of riding a new energy scooter.
Those flimsy, two-wheeled scooters that gave you freedom on the sidewalk in front of your house before your acquisition of a bike opened up the whole neighborhood.
Until recently, that image of a scooter as a nothing more than a child’s toy was the one most people carried.
Now, several companies, such as Bird, LimeBike, and Spin, are out to change that perception. They are banking big on the idea that the small, compact e-scooter is a viable personal transportation device.
But is it?
Let’s take a look at where e-scooters are at today, from their fundamental appeal to how they work to their practicality beyond ordinary weekend fun.
Although manual and electric kick- or push-start scooters have both been around for some time, the popularity of the latter has risen steadily over the past two decades.
Perhaps the central development in the design and marketing of today’s e-scooters is children are no longer the primary audience.
Make no mistake, the targets are still young. They just happen to have a different set of priorities.
College students on campus.
Young professionals who live and work in urban environments.
People looking for alternative means of transportation in those same cities.
Each of these groups offer a market segment that tends to eschew the norms and traditions of the past. Zipping around town on a low-speed, zero-emission scooter certainly caters to those demanding alternatives.
With a unifying factor that everyone over a certain age will probably look a little goofy riding one, it’s easy to see the appeal. It also doesn’t hurt that electric scooters
come across as simple and easily accessible devices that are even easier to operate.
E-scooters, much like their non-powered siblings are about as straightforward as it gets when it comes to personal transportation devices.
In their simplest form scooters are composed of a narrow platform or deck, t-stem handlebars with a throttle and hand brakes, two wheels (although some models come with three or four), and front and rear suspension. Most scooters are fold-able, and some models also include a seat.
When it comes to variation, scooters are what they are. Alter the design too much, and they become an entirely different form of transportation. However, they do possess a few key areas where a slight difference makes a significant impact on performance.
It begins and ends with the battery.
You’ll find one of three battery types in the manufacturing of e-scooters, Nickel Metal Hydride, Lead-Acid, and Lithium-ion:
Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH)
A long-term market mainstay, NiMH batteries carry the middle ground between the well-known lead-acid and the newer Lithium-ion. NiMH batteries hold a longer charge versus a lead-acid version but are heavier than the Lithium-ion variety. Ultimately, these work well as a practical, cost-conscience alternative to the pricey Lithium-ion.
The long-standing workhorse of rechargeable batteries, lead-acid batteries have yet to lose their place as the preferred starter for automobiles and the power source for golf carts. Though a bit cumbersome for widespread use, you’ll still find plenty of these weighty and very inexpensive batteries in larger scooters.
The newest battery technology for e-scooters is also the most expensive, but for very good reasons. The Lithium-ion tech is more powerful, holds a charge far longer than either the lead acid or NiMH, and do so in a much more lightweight package. More and more longest range electric scooter
are featuring these batteries and as the tech and production improve, so should the price.
The allure of the e-scooter both as a toy and as a potential vehicle for commuting is the simplicity of the whole endeavor. The other facet of its practicality, especially for adult professionals is its limitations.
Due to the diminutive build of scooters, the size of the onboard battery is typically smaller than a cable box, which means the overall performance of the rideable has its limits. Nowhere is this impact felt more than by the capacity, range, and speed.
More so than most other electric rides, a scooters range and speed is dictated directly by the capacity it carries and the terrain it traverses. With few exceptions, most scooter manufacturers provide an ideal set of circumstances to reach optimal range and speed, usually defined as a 165 lb rider on a smooth flat surface.
Rideshare scooters max out at 15 mph. Though most e-scooters can top out at speeds close to 20 mph (with some newer models flirting with the 30- mph mark) rare is the time an adult rider can achieve this mark.
This works well for riding mini electric scooter
in an urban environment since it lends itself to a more comfortable, confident rider. Plus, anything faster typically invites accident and potential injury.
As with most personal e-vehicles, such as hoverboards, self-balancing unicycles, and Segways, the individual riding the device most often determines just how safe it is. However, staying upright on a scooter is less fraught with danger versus those other options.
The primary safety issue with scooters is when you place them among large groups of pedestrians and cars, which is happening now in a number of major cities across the U.S.
This intermingling of people on foot and those scooting by at a top speed of 15 mph has created an uptick in accidents between the two, though reliable data does not yet exist on the exact numbers.
Beyond possible run-ins with non-riders, another primary safety concern revolves around the attire of the actual riders. Though every scooter manufacturer and ride-sharing company recommend the use of a helmet, and many cities dictate the wearing of headgear, very few e-scooter riders do so.
As we noted in the opening, several startups are beginning to flood major metropolitan areas with hundreds of rent by the minute scooters.
One of these groups, Bird, is helmed by Travis VanderZanden, a former executive at ride-sharing giants Lyft and Uber. Others in the marketplace include LimeBike, who also offers bikes for rent, and Spin, who has a similar business model with bikes and scooters.
The appeal of the scooter-sharing programs is the cost and convenience.
Powered by an app, after you enter basic info and agree to terms, you can unlock the high speed electric scooter for adult
via a simple scan. The app can also guide you to the closest ride. Since they are dock-less, you can find one anywhere and leave one anywhere.
When it comes time to pay, depending on where you need to go, most rides will run you fewer than $5.
Bird, for example, charges a $1 unlocking fee and then 15 cents for each minute of use. For a fifteen minute trek, that will run you $3.25. Many rides are far less than that.
While it’s been a massive plus for those seeking alternatives to walking or riding mass transit, many cities have been less than receptive.
It doesn’t help that in several locales the scooter-share companies have unloaded hundreds of the devices throughout town with no permit and barely any notice. Several municipalities have responded with demands for the groups to remove the vehicles, or they would do it for them.
Another issue popping up involves either the lack of experience or lack of knowledge of the riders.
In the majority of cities across the U.S., e-scooters fall under the same ordinances that govern the use of bicycles. While most bike riders understand the basic tenets they are expected to follow, its uncertain how many scooter renters do.
For example, with very few exceptions, scooters must be ridden in bike lanes or city streets where the former doesn’t exist. Yet, numerous reports abound that plenty of e-scooters are traversing city sidewalks, instead of staying below the curb.
In addition, the use of a helmet is practically a universal requirement for any two-wheeled vehicle, whether it’s powered manually, electronically, or with gasoline.
Several companies have begun to offer helmets for a nominal fee to their regular, in-town adapters. Unfortunately, the “get it and go” nature of renting an e-scooter dictate that most users won’t have headgear handy when they are ready to ride. So many go without the proper protection.
As is the case for new technologies and new ways of addressing old problems, it’s a tricky balancing act for everyone involved.
To that point, we should note two major U.S. cities in New York and Boston have explicitly said no to the experiment, while Austin, TX has found some resolution, after hammering out regulatory requirements for the operators.
With both successes and failures, time will tell if the e-scooter providers and the cities in which they hope to operate can discover a happy medium.
Few things in this world have ever made the jump from child’s toy to adult necessity. With people clamoring for travel alternatives and lukewarm response from local governments, it will be interesting to see if the scooter-sharing industry has the wheels to carry it beyond a millennial fad.
If nothing else, it’s a noble attempt to make un-walkable cities a bit more comfortable to navigate and to alleviate some of the stress and congestion of urban living.
Regardless of how that turns out though, a weekend scoot around the neighborhood with the breeze in your hair and a pair of battery-powered wheels at your feet will never go out of style.
The easing of lockdowns has highlighted the importance of individual, emission-free, socially distanced transport as governments try to prevent spikes in car use and pollution. But the story of e-scooters is one of both a popular tech gadget and a contentious form of transport. While they offer a seemingly fun and environmentally friendly option for short journeys, a range of questions about their safety and sustainability have emerged in the past two years.
So how did e-scooters go from risky tech novelty to a green travel solution for the coronavirus recovery? And are they really so good for the planet?
E-scooters have been available to privately buy for over a decade but many remain prohibitively expensive. It took the affordable, accessible option of shared, dockless models – which can be rented by the minute using a smartphone app – for their popularity to skyrocket. In 2018, shared e-scooter startups Bird and Lime rapidly introduced them to US cities (sometimes without permission). Soon after, the companies – along with a proliferation of other startups, including European-based Voi and Tier – began to rapidly expand across cities internationally.
Regulation and legislation measures vary internationally. In many countries, they are technically illegal. Until recently they have been in the UK too, but in May, the government announced that shared e-scooter trials would be brought forward by a year and rolled out nationally. As of 4 July, rental e-scooters are legal on the UK's streets. Meanwhile in Jakarta, Singapore and Shanghai, e-scooters are still banned on roads and pavements entirely, while Paris has banned riding and parking them on pavements. Other cities have speed limits, restrictions on scooter numbers or rules on where they can be used and parked.
Safety is not the only issue, though: e-scooters have come under increasing scrutiny for their environmental impact. Although shared models are emission-free at the point of use, the process of manufacturing, moving and managing them results in greenhouse gas emissions – which increase if they have a short lifespan. Most shared e-scooters need to be collected, charged and redistributed regularly, often using fossil-fuelled vehicles.
A 2019 study by researchers at North Carolina State University, taking into account emissions produced by making and moving e-scooters, suggested they typically produce more emissions per passenger mile than a standard bus with high ridership, an electric moped, an e-bike or a regular bicycle. Such findings are echoed by research from the Lufthansa Innovation Hub ranking estimated carbon emissions of various transport types, which suggests average emissions of dockless e-scooters are higher than those of trains, buses, e-bikes, electric and hybrid cars and even petrol-powered scooters.
Such emissions can be reduced through reducing the number of trips by operational vehicles to ferry scooters around cities, using emission-free vehicles when they do so and increasing scooter lifespan. Currently, shared e-scooters are meant to last between one and two years, but due to both accidental and deliberate damage, many last much less time than that. Looking at Louisville, Kentucky, Quartz estimated the average lifespan of a Bird e-scooter was roughly 29 days. Many believe the dockless set-up is to blame. Dockless bike-share schemes were heavily criticised when "mass graveyards" of redundant bikes appeared – could e-scooters be heading the same way?