OpinionThe Case for Electric Scooters
Mobility’s iPhone moment is nearing, and it has nothing to do with autonomous cars, writes tech entrepreneur Nadav Gur
Mobility is on the verge of having its own “iPhone Moment,” where a new form factor, user interface, and mature technology turns a former niche product into a daily habit for the majority of the population, upending huge industries and creating new ones.
Electric scooters, or more generically Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs), have hit the tech news cycle in a big way these last few months. They get confiscated, thrown in the ocean, or hung on trees.
Mostly, they get ridden. If you live in Los Angeles, San Diego or San Francisco you're already seeing them, you're witnessing the results of hundreds of millions of dollars invested in startups like Bird and Limebike, and the intense public debate about un-tethered scooter sharing.
For the last couple of months, I've been trying out scooters in various environments, talking to manufacturers and distributors, and drawing some conclusions.
The wave of cheap, practical electric PMDs is a result of recent trends in automotive, drones and IoT. Improved battery technology and cost, cheap network connectivity and better electric motors made century-old concepts like motorized kick-scooters and bicycles faster, more efficient and cleaner than ever before. For a few hundred dollars, you can now buy a device that will take you 10-20 miles at close to 20 miles an hour and a near-zero cost per mile. As if this isn’t enough, PMDs have great advantages in connecting to existing means of transportation, both public and private.
Bikes have been around for 200 years, and the attempt to reshape cities through promoting them has deep roots. For most people, it fails miserably. Exercise is laudable but sweating on the way to work is not. Bikes are bulky when you're off them - they are hard to carry into an office, hard to carry on a train or walk on a sidewalk. You either park them in the street, where they can get stolen or vandalized, or have to allot costly real-estate in your office for bike-parking. For most people, they are useless in hilly cities and are not a viable option for commuting daily. In emerging economies where people can't afford a car or motorcycle, bikes are the norm but not the aspiration.
There are several big differences between electric PMDs including electric bikes and traditional bikes. The obvious one is that you can go far and fast without breaking a sweat. Like it or not, many people sitting in cars are sitting there because they are too lazy to walk or bike.
Foldable electric scooters are easy to carry indoors and store under a desk. They are easy to carry into public transportation and store in the overhead rack, or pop in the trunk of your car or a taxi, enabling hybrid commutes. Finally, it's easy to get off of a scooter and walk it or carry it by hand. The light is red? Get off the scooter, and walk it across the pedestrian crossing; You can shave off a few minutes by carrying it up a flight of stairs, a gate or a turn-style? No problem—it is small, light and the center of gravity is 4 inches off the ground.
For the uninitiated, the obvious difference is the cost. If you commute by car-hailing, you probably spend in one or two months what it would cost you to own and operate an electric scooter for years.
The PMD is always with you and instantly available. You can park it under your desk, and it unfolds and starts riding in under 5 seconds. Even if you don't care about the money, you don't care about the environment. You don't mind the interaction with a stranger you will still have to wait for a taxi or Uber. In ride-haling, driver availability determines how long it takes to get a ride and is the key barrier to repeat use. No one likes launching the app, seeing that you have to wait 7 minutes, and realizing that's "just the initial estimate." The instant gratification of getting out the door and being in motion within 10 seconds is simply hard to give away once you get used to it.
In many urban environments, a scooter doing 15 miles-per-hour will get you there quicker than a car. You save the wait time or having to walk to your parking spot and getting the car out of parking. While riding, you are virtually unaffected by traffic, especially in cities with reasonable bike lanes. The indignation on the faces of drivers standing in traffic while you silently glide by is either gratifying or humbling, depending on your perspective. Throw in some of the hacks mentioned above, like carrying the scooter up a flight of stairs or turning into a pedestrian instantly whenever it suits you, and many city commutes become faster and more enjoyable than riding in a car.
The positive effect of reducing the number of cars on the road on cities is evident and well-documented. If I'm gliding by you on my scooter, I'm not in front of you in traffic, I won't take up your parking space or your car charger spot, and I'm not spewing out noxious fumes. PMDs make public transportation more effective because they solve the last-mile problem effectively for more people, and without requiring specialized train cars or longer bus stops to get bikes off of racks.
PMDs solve parking problems in more than one way. Naturally, they reduce the number of parking spots needed, but they also spread them out. People who are driving from out-of-town can park on the outskirts where parking is plentiful and cheap, and avoid looking for the last spot or paying top dollar to park downtown.
So having a PMD in the trunk can make your life easier as a driver. That should be most appreciated by electric car owners, whose range-anxiety creates a dilemma: Park close and crawl home later on the last few percents of your battery, or park far away at an available charger and walk the distance. Park at the charger, glide to your destination.
With the wave of investment in autonomous cars came a wave of research about the opportunity for cities and society stemming from autonomy. The truth is that the benefits will not be reaped in the next decade. Even if the technology was ready, and it's not, the replacement-cycle for cars is long, and there will not be a reduction in the number of cars in cities because autonomous cars are "more effective" for decades to come if at all. In contrast, equipping everyone in San Francisco with electric scooters is something that can be done within months, for a relatively low cost.
If you're in the business of making cars, PMDs should top your list of existential worries. PMDs of different form factors are going to affect car ownership at least as much as ride-hailing, but with ride-hailing at least you get to sell a car to either the driver or the ride-hailing company and potentially charge more because of increased use and expected generated income. PMDs replace cars at a fraction of the cost and don't require the 70 years mass-production legacy of your founders in Detroit, Bavaria or Aichi. The passenger-car business in developed economies will shrink, and PMDs will slow the growth in developing economies too.
Some automotive OEMs get that. The Ford Ojo, by Ojo Electric and Ford, is an example of pretty design. Unfortunately, it fails completely on portability.
The bottom line though is that much fewer cars will be made and sold, and those revenues will not be replaced by selling scooters.
Finally, for big oil, a vehicle that goes more than 1,000 MPGe (rough estimate for a 500W scooter doing 15 MPH) is, well, not good for business.
I project great gains for oil and auto lobbyists "advising" state and federal governments about how ugly, dangerous and dorky these devices are. Some of them will buy into it.
The biggest drawbacks are weather and safety. Riding at 20 MPH in cold weather is not much fun and if it rains or snows can be miserable. It's easy to see why U.S. adoption started in Southern California. If you live where being outdoors is not a good idea, sitting in a four-wheel box is probably still your best option. Solutions borrowed from motorcycling where windshields, heated grips, and heated clothing are pretty much standard with winter riders will easily be adopted, especially as you're riding on a battery with wheels.
Safety concerns are more tricky to address, and there is not a whole lot of data. Generally, PMDs should be at least as safe as bicycles or better, as the rider is standing a few inches from the ground and that's also where the center of gravity is. It's much harder to be hit by the scooter itself than by a bike falling on you.
In recent months we are witnessing major launches and major fundings for brand-new PMD companies. Bird, started by a former Uber and Lyft executives, launched scooter-sharing networks in Southern California, raised over $100 million, and then expanded into San Francisco. 2017 founded LimeBike started with bicycles and followed suit to the tune of over $130M. Uber itself has acquired bike-sharing startup JUMP. These deals are dwarfed by the acquisition of China-based Mobike for $2.7B by delivery company Meituan-Janping. So are Bird and LimeBike the next Uber & Lyft?
Can Bird and LimeBike be the next Uber and Lyft?
While these companies bear more than a coincidental resemblance— similar apps, similar business models, similar "apologize later" philosophy, even similarly-named CEOs—the market dynamics are different. The main substitute good for an Uber or taxi ride is driving your own car. That requires a license, a big up-front investment, a big on-going investment in a parking space, and usually extra time to find parking and walk to your destination. If you're in a big city, intra-city ride-hailing is competitive with driving as far as cost is concerned and as far as time spent.
By comparison, the main substitute good for renting a Bird or Lime is owning one. The up-front cost of a scooter is $300 for entry-level up to $900 for the cream of the crop. That's equivalent to only 100-200 Bird rides ($1 + $0.25/minute). If you commute this way daily, you can recoup the cost in 2 months.
More importantly, the biggest impediment for car ride-hailing is driver supply, which translates to how long you have to wait. The equivalent with scooters is how long you have to walk to find a scooter. Getting out of the office, popping up the app and learning that you have to walk a few blocks to get a scooter is a big impediment to adoption, especially when the alternative is pulling your scooter from under your desk, stepping out the door and getting on your way. For scooter-sharing companies to compete, they need to saturate the streets with scooters. It's not prohibitively costly, but it's the public's real-estate, and further backlash can be expected.
While Bird and other similar companies may do a great job of educating the public on the convenience of PMDs, the existence of a sustainable business model is questionable. Casual riders and visitors will rent scooters, just like tourists and infrequent visitors use ride-share, but daily commuters will own, not rent.
Scooters themselves are closer to mass-market consumer electronics than cars. The barrier to entry is low, and there aren't big established brands that carry a premium. This means margins will be low and inversely proportional to market share. Unless design wins enable a brand to get ahead of the pack, this is not going to be a high margin business. It is, however, going to be a massive business.
Some of the technology used to enable autonomy in cars and drones is very useful for PMDs. Expect self-stabilizing devices to make PMDs safe even for frail, elderly people as well as irresponsible children of all ages. Expect sensors to reduce the likelihood of crashes the same way advanced driving assistance systems assist drivers today. As these technologies mature and prices drop, they will be incorporated into PMDs, mostly to increase the addressable market size and make them safer. Autonomous cars have been hailed as a freedom cry for the frail and the elderly. PMDs can get there a decade earlier.
Electric, collapsible personal mobility devices are an effective and cheap solution to key mobility problems. They will become pervasive as smartphones. We will see many form-factors and benefit directly from their utility and indirectly from a reduction in traffic congestion, carbon emissions and a need for parking space.
Nadav Gur is a serial tech entrepreneur and executive. He is currently an advisor at Blumberg Capital, a San Francisco-based venture capital fund, and the head of AI at Berlin-based auto tech startup German Auto Labs. Mr. Gur was the founder and CEO of travel planning startups Desti, acquired in 2014 by Nokia and WorldMate, acquired in 2012 by Carlson Wagonlit Travel.