Why are car giants investing in micro-scooters?

Fleets of motorised micro-scooters have flooded city streets of late, but why has the trend drawn the eye of global automakers? Freddie Holmes investigates

Riding a micro scooter as a kid was a painful experience. Aptly named ‘razor scooters’, they had the uncanny ability to remove the skin from your shins. Propelled by simply kicking the ground, they were certainly fun to zoom around on but by no means a legitimate mode of urban transportation.

Fast-forward to 2019, and scooters have become the commute of preference for a growing number of adults. Equipped with electric motors and a top speed of around 15mph (24kph), today’s e-scooters have formed a new layer of public transportation. Automotive industry watchers have questioned whether this is a realistic piece to the future mobility puzzle, or simply a short-lived fad.

At face value—shared, connected and electric—they certainly tick the right boxes.

Interesting investments

Over the past few years, many of the world’s largest household automotive names have emulated the work ethic of venture capital firms. Alongside traditional vehicle manufacturing activities, sizeable investments into the weird and wonderful have come thick and fast. Electric scooters, however, appear to be one of the more obscure targets. The trend has certainly raised eyebrows across the industry.

“I put it under the category of throwing something against the wall and seeing if it will stick,” said Matt DeLorenzo, Senior Managing Editor for Kelley Blue Book. He suggested that automakers are getting involved with e-scooters as “another attempt to make themselves seem relevant in the mobility movement.”

Ford Spin app
In November 2018, Ford acquired Spin

However, it has also seen valuations skyrocket. “If 12 months ago someone said ‘there is going to be a US$2bn scooter company’ you would have probably laughed them out of the door,” mused Sunny Madra, Vice President of Ford X when speaking at the Morgan Stanley Annual Laguna Conference in September 2018.

Earlier that year, Ford had announced it would discontinue sedans and compact cars in the US, focussing instead on SUVs, pick-ups and performance models like the Mustang. A few months later in November, news broke that it had acquired Spin, one of the main players alongside Lime and Bird in the e-scooter market. Whilst a puzzling decision for some—dialling back on cars and doubling down on scooters—the investment ties back to Bill Ford’s 2011 TED Talk: “My concern changed from ‘how do we sell more cars and trucks’, to ‘what if we only sell more cars and trucks’.”

Beyond four wheels

For an automaker to look beyond cars for new profit pools is not entirely surprising. “The future of the automotive industry will very much hinge on OEMs becoming brokers of ‘Mobility-as-a-Service’, delivered through all kinds of modes of transportation: cars, trains, bikes… or scooters,” observed Axel Schmidt, Automotive Global Lead at Accenture.

Speaking at the Barclays Global Automotive Conference in November 2018, Joe Hinrichs, President of Global Operations at Ford, responded to criticism that “precious” capital was being spent inconsistently. He backed the Spin deal as being an “important part” of the automaker’s mobility strategy.

It has become a lucrative area, with some start-ups earning so-called unicorn status; that is, a billion-dollar valuation. Bird was reported to have been the fastest start-up ever to become a unicorn, taking little under a year. A round of investment led by Alphabet and Uber in July 2018 valued Lime—which was only founded in January 2017—at US$1.1bn. “E-scooters do in fact make good sense,” said Schmidt. “They are relatively cheap to make and operate, which fits well with the key idea of MaaS, and this is all about bringing down the cost per kilometer.”

The user base is growing significantly as a whole, and with e-scooters used primarily for short distance travel, utilisation rates are sky high. “It took Uber three years to get to one million rides, but it took Lime six months,” noted Ford’s Madra. “This is something that you just can’t ignore if you’re looking at mobility.”

It is not just Ford that is looking beyond four wheels for future mobility solutions. SEAT has developed its own motorised scooter in partnership with Segway. Equipped with front and rear LED lights, a digital display and even cruise control, the eXS is offered as a privately owned scooter as opposed to a publically shared product. It builds on the Volkswagen Group’s existing ‘Cityskater’, a three-wheel scooter designed specifically for last-mile travel. Peugeot has offered the Micro e-Kick scooter as an accessory for the 3008 GT SUV for a couple of years now, while the folding BMW X2City e-scooter will also be sold to private customers. At CES 2017, Hyundai previewed its Ioniq e-scooter concept, although little news has followed since.

Bird graveyard

E-scooters fall under the umbrella term of ‘micro-mobility’ in which solutions are designed to facilitate quick and easy last-mile travel. Hail-a-cab services have tapped into this market to significant success, but increasingly congested city roads have begun to tarnish their appeal. Rather than waiting for a taxi, you can hunt for a scooter; it is less Uber and more Pokemon Go. Initially, the lesser spotted e-scooter was likely to be found lying at the side of the road after having been abandoned by its rider.

Indeed, early deployment was not a glamorous affair. Videos shared on social media showed riders struggling to operate these e-scooters—colliding with cars, curbs and each other. Then there is Bird Graveyard, an Instagram account dedicated to the destruction of e-scooters, most often by throwing them from multi-storey car parks. As one PBS news reporter put it: “It gives new meaning to the term ‘bird droppings’.”

It is not quite the utopian future that some may have hoped for, and neither has it met the visions of city planners. Indeed, municipalities soon scrambled teams to perform what can only be described as pest control to round up abandoned rides.

One bird
Micro-mobility solutions are designed for quick and easy last-mile travel

Despite the clutter, mobility experts point to the bigger picture of a properly managed service: accessibility. “Many see e-scooters cluttering our sidewalks and streets and causing a safety hazard. In contrast, I see more travel choices,” said Dan Sperling, Professor of Engineering and Environmental Science at the University of California, Davis. “I see an opportunity to reduce dependence on cars, and thus a way to reduce the huge amount of urban space devoted to parking and roads, the large amounts of greenhouse gases emitted by vehicles, and an innovative way to increase accessibility and mobility.”

Accenture’s Schmidt agrees. “Scooters are easy to use, which means they are suitable for a much larger total addressable market—people without a driver’s license, or youths, for example,” he added. “They are also relatively sustainable and much better suited for crowded city streets than, say, large SUVs.”

Rogue deployment

Much like the rebellious teens that first rode scooters decades ago, some start-ups went ahead and did as they pleased without permission. Back in July 2018, dozens of Bird electric scooters appeared in Boston seemingly overnight and with no formal partnership in place with the city. Dockless and free-floating, this also meant streets became dumping grounds. Piles of discarded scooters lined sidewalks like litter that had been blown aimlessly in the wind. Once clear public walkways and cycle routes soon became graveyards for scooters that had fulfilled the brief needs of their riders, who pay little more than US$0.15 a minute on top of a US$1 unlock fee.

Boston Mayer, Marty Walsh, remarked at the time that, “if they drop them off here, we’re going to pick them up off the street and they can come pick them up at the tow yard.” Shortly after, Boston became a no-fly zone with the Bird smartphone app marking the entire city as off limits to riders. Earlier in May, a local government-led sweep in Nashville, Tennessee confiscated 150 Bird scooters that had been abandoned illegally on public rights-of-way.

“Automakers getting involved in this market will be at the mercy of local government, who may make moves to ban their use,” said Kelley Blue Book’s DeLorenzo. “State and local governments will determine how and where these scooters will be used. The bigger issue is the one of the unsightly litter of these bikes, especially those that lack docking stations.”

In August, the San Francisco Municipal Transport Agency (SFMTA) also put its foot down and abruptly cut short the operations of numerous scooter start-ups. Of 12 applicants, relatively unknown players Skip and Scoot gained approval after meeting the SFMTA’s strict guidelines for a ‘safe, equitable, and accountable scooter-share service.’ In November, Bird hit back against an ‘unceremonious’ ban of e-scooters in Beverley Hills. A few months earlier, around 1,000 Bird scooters had been impounded by city officials, along with a reported US$100,000 bill for their release.

In December, Gold Coast officials in Brisbane, Australia hit out at Lime for ‘plonking’ e-scooters on city streets and footpaths without permission.

“Cities that have banned or limited them, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Santa Monica, worried that the scooters were cluttering sidewalks and creating safety hazards for pedestrians and riders,” said Sperling. “Even my own city of Davis—perhaps the ideal host for e-scooters because of its extensive bike network and bike culture—temporarily banned e-scooters in November 2018.”

Interestingly, many of these cities are also advocates for emissions-free transportation. New mobility solutions need to be implemented according to official guidelines, however, and not at the leisure of start-ups seeking growth first, and approval later. “What we like about Spin is they work collaboratively with the local government,” noted Ford’s Hinrichs in November, who suggested that developing a close relationship with cities will be vital.

The last (three) miles

The appeal of a kick scooter is likely to vary depending on where you live. For a rural dweller out in the sticks, the attraction will be fairly limited. For city slickers that contend with gridlock day in, day out, the e-scooter is no gimmick.

“Scooters have really highlighted the sub three mile market,” said Ford’s Madra at the Morgan Stanley conference in September. “I was at Twitter in San Francisco a couple of months ago… To get to the Ferry Building with an Uber X would have taken 15 or 20 minutes and cost US$8 due to traffic. It took me three minutes on a scooter to get there.”

Those that frequent long-stay car parks could also feel the benefit. Depending on the user’s luggage, an e-scooter could take away the pain of walking the final stretch to the car after a tiring plane or train journey. “They can serve as an important link in multi-modal mobility service offerings,” explained Accenture’s Schmidt. “Why not, for example, rent a scooter to get from your ‘park and ride’ spot at the end of the lot to the train station that’s 2km down the road if you’re in a hurry?”

Ford Spin
For urban commuters that contend with gridlock, the e-scooter is no gimmick

Prior to the clampdown on e-scooters, it was somewhat of a free-for-all. Scooters would zip in and out of traffic on roads, and pedestrians on public walkways. Now, cities like San Francisco have put strict regulations in place that limit where, and how, scooters can be ridden and parked. Integration with existing traffic could be eased by limiting their use to cycle lanes.

“E-scooters are compatible with bicycles; they have similar speed profiles and can use the same infrastructure. Indeed, they increase the pressure to build more safe protected bike lanes, which would be used by both the e-scooters and bikes,” said Sperling. “My own personal experience is that they are fun and easy to use—some people reluctant to ride a bike find the scooters more acceptable.”

Challenges do remain. Will e-scooters be seasonal, for example? Snow, ice and bitterly cold weather do not make for an attractive—or safe—user experience. Roads and cycle lanes also need to be kept clear and in good condition; a car’s suspension may suffer from hitting a pothole, but could send a scooter rider hurtling. Irresponsible riding is also a threat. In August 2018, an elderly woman was hit and killed by someone riding an e-scooter in the Catalan barrio of Esplugues de Llobregat.

Keep on scooting

While movements in the US may have captured the headlines, it is very much a global phenomenon. Berlin start-ups Wind Mobility and Tier, Swedish start-up VOI and Paris-based Bolt make up a growing contingent taking hold in Europe. Bird is expanding in various regions across South America, including Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Bogota. In Brazil, Yellow is making waves in the investment community and recently sealed a US$75m investment round. In January 2019, Singapore’s Land Transit Authority (LTA) began accepting applications to operate shared e-scooter services in the city-state.

“Within one year, shared electric scooters have gained the fancy of travellers, start-ups, investors and multinational automakers. But will those billion dollar unicorn investments soon turn into financial disappointments?” mused Sperling. “I hope not. They are not for everyone nor suited to all occasions, but they are fun and easy to drive, inexpensive, have miniscule carbon footprints, and provide a good alternative for trips up to about three miles. Build more protected bike-scooter lanes, and we have a massive success story.”

Accenture’s Schmidt is of a similar view. “I fully expect this to not be a fad, but a trend,” he concluded. “The market opportunity around mobility services is simply too large, and the bets that companies are making around it too substantial. All the players pushing for these kinds of offerings—be they OEMs like Ford and SEAT, or start-ups like Bird and the VC firms backing them—are already creating considerable momentum. Expect to see more scooters around.”

This article appeared in the Q2 2019 issue of M:bility | Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue

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