Reprint from Bloomberg
Electric scooter startups have been grappling with an unexpected problem that’s laying waste to the two-wheeled vehicles: Europe’s cobbled streets.
Scooter companies have rapidly expanded across the continent, targeting tourist spots such as Paris and Lisbon, raising hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital funding in the process. But while the first scooter startups began in California, where sidewalks are predominantly flat, Europe is full of cobbled streets built hundreds of years ago. Users got uncomfortable rides at best, or scooter-crippling breakages at worse.
“Lisbon is pretty tough for that in particular,” said Wind Mobility Chief Executive Officer Eric Wang. “You only have the promenade that’s flat and smooth, but away from that it becomes quite hilly and cobbled.”
Joe Kraus, president of Lime, said he’d seen riders adopting standing techniques to deal with cobblestones specifically. “The simplest one is they actually stand on their toes,” he said. “It’s amazing but you can’t feel the stones as much.”
Many of the continent’s oldest capital cities also feature very narrow streets — useful for taking a shortcut on a scooter, and near-impossible to navigation for a scooter company’s collection truck.
“If a vehicle is detected somewhere as needing refurbishment or repair, you’ve got to get a technician to that point,” said Carlos Bhola, co-founder of Circ, the company he created with Delivery Hero SE co-founder Lukasz Gadowski. “Sometimes we have to use the subway to get to the vehicles and pick it up.”
In popular areas, a single scooter can be used for about 10 journeys per day. The inevitable deterioration of wheels or steering columns can render them useless, and dumped on sidewalks or in rivers and canals.
To solve these problems, scooter companies have been building their own proprietary models. Lime’s latest iterations have bigger wheels and robust suspension, modifications that are also favored by its competitors. Vehicles from companies like Bird Rides Inc. are now almost too heavy to lift by hand, making them harder to steal. Some use heavy-duty bicycle brakes. Tier Mobility, one of the largest European scooter companies, has added two wheel-mounted brake pads on its latest model, in addition to electric brakes.
Newer designs use as few components as possible to further increase a scooter’s lifespan and reduce the need to store stocks of spare parts in maintenance centers. These new models can cost about the same as the latest off-the-shelf models — in the ballpark of $500 in some cases — but because they are expected to last longer, the unit economics are more promising.
“Our tests show that our new models will last one or two years,” said Patrick Studener, head of Bird’s European and Asian business. “It’s night and day compared to the first models.”
A number of other companies, including Wind, aim to make their scooters last for two years. No executive who spoke to Bloomberg News for this story said that anything under a year’s lifespan was a reasonable target.
The approach to Europe is an insight into how mobility startups are thinking twice about their previous model of moving fast and breaking scooters. Now, startups are concluding that heavy-duty proprietary hardware and swappable batteries will help them make money, or at least curtail losses.
In July, the tech website the Information reported that Bird, one of the industry’s biggest players, posted a loss of nearly $100 million in the first quarter of 2019, with revenue shrinking to about $15 million in the period. No scooter company has yet to reveal that it’s profitable.
Between 2017 and 2018, the startups spent the majority of their early cash buying scooters, with a basic unit costing upwards of $400. Today a scooter can cost about half as much, as demand over the past 18 months has helped push down manufacturing costs. But models with bigger batteries and larger, cobble-friendly wheels can still run $500 or more.
“They were more like toys, and not really built for sharing,” said Fredrik Hjelm, co-founder and CEO of Sweden’s Voi Technology AB. “Those models were the best out there at that point, but we realized that we needed to fast-forward our own vehicle development.”
Another problem is that scooters are easy to steal. One person said that in some instances, thieves would take dozens of units off the streets in Paris overnight using networks of vans. Thieves worked out how to break scooter locks and location trackers, and would then resell them. It wasn’t unusual to see about 20 vanishing a day in Paris, the person said.
Building a Sturdier Scooter
Besides their more resilient frames, some new models of scooters now also come with swappable batteries. Most existing units include large power packs fixed inside the vehicle that can’t be removed. As a result, the only way to charge them is to either collect them all each evening and recharge them overnight — which Tier does, in addition to maintenance — or have some of them juiced up by gig economy workers who want to earn a few extra bucks — a system adopted in some cities by Bird.
“Swappable batteries reduce charging costs and should reduce asset depreciation,” said Paul Murphy, a partner at VC firm Northzone, which invested in Tier. “Consumers will benefit from more fully-charged vehicles, and operators will benefit from better unit economics.”
Murphy said he believes hardware will continue to quickly evolve, and will be like “a Moore’s law for mobility,” referring to the observation by Intel Corp. co-founder Gordon Moore predicting exponential growth in computing power.
The ability to swap out empty batteries in the street and have the scooter back in service right away will be “a game-changer” for the industry, said Lawrence Leuschner, CEO and co-founder of Tier. “The operating costs will be a lot less when you can swap on-site.”
But even as hardware developments show promise, other hurdles remain. In the U.K., where ride-hailing, the gig economy and electric bicycle sharing schemes are a mainstay of city life, scooters remain illegal on public roads. The government said in March it was opening “the biggest regulatory review in a generation” of current mobility laws, some of which date back to 1835, but the death of a YouTube star on an electric scooter in July renewed safety concerns.
“People who use e-scooters need to be aware it is currently illegal to ride them on the road and the pavement,” a spokeswoman for the U.K.’s Department for Transport said in a statement. “Safety is at the heart of our roads laws.”