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Geofencing Feature Could Give Lime a Competitive Advantage

Upgrades to the company’s electric scooters will make the devices more responsive to travel restrictions set by local rules. Since coming to cities nationwide, governments have struggled to regulate them.

by / March 16, 2020
A Lime scooter sits on Market Street in San Francisco. The company is making its devices more responsive to geofence zones like no-ride areas or no-parking zones with upgrades to the onboard technology. Ben Miller/Government Technology

Lime, one of the largest operators of the small, electric, app-based scooters, is in the process of upgrading its scooters so they respond more quickly to operational requirements inside geofenced zones.

“We’re launching the feature globally this week, and rolling it out, technologically, to all of our scooters,” Adam Kovacevich, head of Americas government relations at Lime, said last week. “It requires updating the firmware in the scooter itself.” 

Technology today works by having the scooter “ping” a central server about every 60 seconds. In the industry these signals, which relay location data in the form of GPS coordinates, are what’s known as the “heartbeat” of the scooter, Kovacevich explained. The server, which contains all of the area’s geofence maps, compares the scooter’s GPS location with the map.

“The challenge is that if you have this happening every 60 seconds, it can delay the execution of the zone command,” said Kovacevich. By not getting the command right away, compliance with the geofence zones is delayed.

“Instead of pinging the server every 60 seconds, or more frequently, which is what the other companies are doing, what will happen going forward,” said Kovacevich “the brain of the scooter, called the CPU, will host all of the zone’s maps directly on its firmware.”

“That means the scooter itself will be able to perform a calculation, which could be as frequent as every second, to determine its location,” said Kovacevich, explaining the technology which Lime has patented. “And then if the ‘brain’ has determined that the scooter has entered a zone, it will ping the server and receive the appropriate command.”

For any number of reasons, as cities have evolved in their regulation of scooters, they have carved out zones where operation is limited or restricted. For example, some areas may be a no-parking zones, or no-ride zones. While other areas — such as boardwalks in beach communities — require that scooters operate at a much slower speed than the more typical 15 mph.

Because it could take the scooter up to a minute to receive a no-ride zone command, the scooter could be well inside this zone before receiving the signal to stop. 

“So it might take a while before it would recognize that you were in a no-ride zone. In the future, it will recognize it right away,” said Kovacevich.

Cities will likely appreciate these upgrades, said Colin Murphy, director of research and consulting at the Shared-Use Mobility Center. However, most municipalities are not monitoring scooters minute-by-minute.

“Most cities aren't going to have the resources to react minute by minute, nor is there a really compelling regulatory need to with micromobility,” said Murphy, in an email.

“I think a bigger question is about validation of the [data] feeds, and to what degree the data cities get from operators actually reflects reality, both in space and time,” he added.

Technology like the new firmware installed on Lime scooters could make the company more attractive to cities as they debate which scooter providers to license, said Kovacevich.

“What we see is that many cities will choose a scooter operator based on the strengths of the GPS and the fencing technology,” he added. “This allows us to show cities that we’ve made a real investment into technology, and that our geofencing will react 90 percent faster than other operators.”

Skip Descant Staff Writer

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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