As their devices have spread across the country this year, electric scooter companies have been criticized for deploying models that break apart in use, catch fire and lull vulnerable riders into a false sense of safety.
With stories about badly injured riders proliferating, a transportation robotics company claims it may have the solution.
Superpedestrian — a Cambridge, Mass.-based micro-mobility company known for making electric bicycles — told The Washington Post that it plans to begin producing an “industrial grade e-scooter” capable of operating on a single charge for several days, self-diagnosing mechanical problems and removing itself from circulation using “vehicle intelligence.”
The average e-scooter life span is about three months, but Assaf Biderman, the company’s founder and CEO, says Superpedestrian’s e-scooters will be able to remain in circulation for as long as 18 months.
“Shared scooters must be super-robust, require minimal charging and be smart enough to sustain themselves on city streets for prolonged periods of time, all while costing a few hundreds of dollars to produce,” Biderman said.
“There’s no hardware that doesn’t break,” he added. “The question is, how do you manage risk? How do you manage failure? Can you make it not permanent? Can you make it so that it’s not risky for your rider?”
Superpedestrian was founded at MIT and began operations in 2013. Though he declined to name the companies involved, Biderman said Superpedestrian is partnering with major ride-hailing firms around the world, and riders can expect to see the devices on the road in the “first half” of 2019.
Companies such as Alphabet, Uber and Lyft have poured millions into the upstart e-scooter revolution. Last month, Ford, the legacy automaker from Detroit, purchased Spin, a San Francisco-based electric-scooter-sharing company.
The company’s scooter tops out at around 17 mph but is slightly larger than models available through major companies such as Bird, Lime, Skip and Lyft. The scooter can travel up to 60 miles on a single charge, the company said.
Biderman said the larger wheel size and rider base improves safety and sets the model apart from most e-scooters on the market.
“When it comes to mechanical design, there’s no magic bullet,” he said. “Are your wheels bigger than potholes? That’s question number one. Can your wheels deal with average road texture while keeping the rider safe? These are things that were figured out in the 1970s, and there’s no other way to answer those questions than putting your vehicles through torture before they hit the market.”
In recent months, employees and mechanics at several scooter companies have told The Post that they are still learning how their vehicles perform in various weather and from regular use. Biderman said he has no doubts about Superpedestrian scooters' performance in extreme weather. In addition to pressuring the frames with thousands of pounds of force, he said, the company simulates hot climates using ovens, as well as corrosion, snow conditions and humidity.
Critics have claimed that some e-scooter companies have inadequate maintenance programs that rely on users to flag maintenance problems. Last month, Lime, one of the world’s largest e-scooter companies, removed thousands of vehicles from the street after reports emerged that the devices were breaking in half during use and that certain batteries had the potential to catch fire. Biderman said Superpedestrian’s scooter is capable of self-diagnosing mechanical problems using “vehicle intelligence,” a tool designed to monitor battery voltage and temperature, as well as the device’s motor.
When the scooter encounters a mechanical problem, Biderman said, its scooter performs automated maintenance. If that fails, he added, the scooter opens a support ticket and takes itself offline, making it impossible for customers to ride. Once that occurs, he said, a human mechanic would be alerted to fix the scooter on the ground.
“Compare this to how things currently work, where you rely on users to report that a vehicle has an issue, but if they fail to do so, people can keep riding and be at risk."