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Scooters Are Rebounding from the Pandemic ‘Nuclear Winter’

Spin is introducing remote-operated scooters in Boise, Idaho, an indication of the kinds of tech upgrades the devices are acquiring as they re-emerge in cities following the COVID-19-induced slowdown.

a scooter rider passes in front of a public transit bus
Shutterstock/Daria Stock
The e-scooter industry is showing signs of embracing new tech. Watch for it to also become more consolidated, and maybe even, financially sustainable.

Spin, a subsidiary of Ford Motor Co., is deploying some 300 remote-operated scooters in Boise, Idaho. The devices include technology developed by Tortoise to allow a human operator thousands of miles away to guide the scooter to a proper parking and/or charging location. The technology frees up the need to have workers manually move the devices around. Later this year, Spin is expected to offer “scooter hailing,” which allows a rider to call the device and have it come to them, company officials say.

“Imagine, you want a scooter out front of your apartment everyday when you need it, or at your bus stop. That’s going to be possible within the year,” said Ben Bear, chief business officer at Spin, explaining the development during a panel at the recent Micromobility World conference. 

Spin is also rolling out its Drover Technology, which alerts riders when they have taken the device on a sidewalk — a no-no in most cities. The scooter can also be programmed to power down when being operated on a sidewalk or other areas city officials have deemed off limits.

“Micromobility continues to be an exciting category,” said Julie Lein, co-founder and managing partner of the Urban Innovation Fund. “I think that there’s still a lot of room for innovation.”

“I anticipate it will continue to grow post-pandemic,” she added, during the Micromobility World conference.

Scooter activity is returning on the mobility scene “with a much higher demand than ever before,” said Quemuel Arroyo, global head of community at Charge, a company focused on setting up public charging stations for e-scooters. This added and new interest in scooters is driven, in part, by lingering fears around the safety of using mass transit — even though transit is largely regarded as safe, with no COVID-19 outbreaks connected to transit.

However, the industry is emerging from the “nuclear winter” brought on by the COVID crisis, he said, and is “going to be even bigger than expected.”

Other industry observers are watching for more consolidation among scooter companies, if only because gobbling up competition is one sure way to ensure market dominance.

“There’s probably a bit more consolidation that will happen. And certainly, we’re not seeing as many units as we saw three or four years ago,” said Sarah Smith, partner with Bain Capital Ventures.

“People have figured out, this is really hard to do. And you have to be at scale to get to unit economics,” Smith added, during the conference.

Despite the bells and whistles on scooters — which generally help operators more than users — riders care about reliability and the convenience of the service, according to analysts.

“So, whoever can pull that off the best — your scooter can be green, red, orange or yellow — I don’t think that’s the thing that makes people choose one or the other,” said Smith. “It’s really the reliability, convenience, proximity and safety that matters the most.”

For its part, Charge is trying to make charging more convenient by expanding its footprint into apartment and office buildings, making it easier to charge either a shared scooter, or a personal device.

Charge operates in Paris, and hopes to grow its presence across Europe. And with the green light for scooters in New York, the company aims to begin working with both the city as well as private building operators to locate scooter charging docking stations.

Private, personal scooters are also quickly gaining adoption in urban areas, and those users will need locations to charge them, said Arroyo in an interview with Government Technology last month.

Consumers may gravitate toward buying their own scooter, investor analysts speculate, but expect the market for devices to remain strong.

“People still buy cars, and people take Uber, and people rent cars, and people use car-share. So I think we’re going to see this whole stratification,” said Kevin Talbot, co-founder and managing partner of Relay Ventures, an early stage venture capital fund, during the conference.

 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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