Shared electric scooters have taken the world by storm, thanks largely to the massive efforts by companies like Lime and Bird. Such companies have flooded cities around the world with affordable, convenient electric scooters that are solving a critical transportation need.
However, a dirty secret of the industry is that these scooters break down at an alarming rate while constantly being cycled out of circulation and replaced. Many scooters don’t last 3 months on the road, and some are even replaced monthly. That’s not enough time to even recoup their cost, calling into question how sustainable such companies can be if their scooters can’t last long enough to be profitable – not to mention the environmental ramifications. But Superpedestrian, a startup straight out of MIT, has built a solution in the form of a smart and self-repairing industrial-grade electric scooter. Could this be the breakthrough needed to turn shared personal electric vehicles into a fully sustainable transportation alternative?
I met up with Superpedestrian’s CEO Assaf Biderman at their Cambridge, Massachusetts headquarters to learn more about the company’s mission and technological developments.
As Assaf explained, the issue of urban mobility is one that requires an urgent solution. Urban centers in the US are expected to see nearly a three-fold increase in mobility demands by 2050. According to Assaf:
“It’s a major issue. Where are you going to put three times the number of cars or people on the road in just three decades? And it’s not about one company. It’s not about Tesla, or Bird, or Superpedestrian. That problem is not going away and will have to be solved.”
Assaf believes that without room to expand roads sufficiently, the problem of meeting 3x the urban mobility demand will need to be solved by curtailing the current trend of one person taking up the space of a (often large) car.
For years, experts have focused on the concept of carpooling to more efficiently capture road space. However, while carpooling and ride shares such as Uber have helped to a degree, pooling returns are limited. Studies have found that peak efficiency for pooling is just over 2 passengers per car, at which point more passengers actually increases congestion due to the extra miles traveled and traffic created to collect them.
Cities just don’t have room for triple the number of cars
So while helpful, pooling doesn’t work to solve the issue as a single solution. Instead, Assaf believes that the answer lies in personal vehicles such as electric bicycles and scooters that are close to the size of a human body. Such small vehicles can be used both for complete car replacements on entire journeys, or to increase the efficiency of other transportation solutions such as pooling options and mass transportation.
While electric bicycle and scooter sharing companies such as Bird and Lime are on their way to addressing this need, they’ve discovered that this solution presents its own problem. Now you need millions of individual vehicles that cost hundreds of dollars instead of thousands, can be centrally managed and don’t require a large workforce to maintain them.
And since shared scooters and e-bikes have many temporary riders instead of a single owner, they need to be able to look after and care for themselves in order to be scalable to a size that actually impacts the transportation issue.
As Assaf explains:
“They need to have a level of intelligence in them to take care of themselves on the street that is greater than that of a normal car today. They need to survive things that cars are not required to survive. But the price pressure is intense; they need to cost an order of magnitude less to make. That’s something that the car industry doesn’t know how to address. There’s not an existing technology platform for addressing that particular challenge. And that’s why Superpedestrian was born. To solve the key technical challenges that will help scale micro-mobility deployments into massive, massive numbers.”
So far, no scooter or e-bike used by the major shared micro-mobility companies has been able to check all of these boxes. Or at least until now, as Superpedestrian claims to have succeeded in building the perfect system.
Superpedestrian’s next level e-bikes and scooters
While at Superpedestrian’s headquarters a few blocks from MIT, I had the chance to take one of the company’s new industrial-grade scooters for a test ride.
Having ridden just about every electric scooter on the market (a perk of the job!) I can tell you this might be the nicest ride I’ve ever had on an electric scooter. I tried to play it cool and not act dumbstruck, but this scooter felt like nothing before. And that’s coming from someone who has just about seen it all.
I was sure that Superpedestrian’s electric scooter had dual suspension based the way it glided over pot holes, speed bumps, cobblestones and brick pavers. As it turns out, the scooter only has front suspension, but the 12″ wheels make the ride so smooth you’d never know. For comparison, those wheels are around 50% larger than almost every other electric scooter on the market.
The rake angle of the front fork is also steeper, making it a blast to carve around the street while remaining completely stable.
The scooter also feels incredibly solid from the moment you step onto it. It made me feel like I was riding a true vehicle instead of an electric toy. That sense helps the rider feel much safer and more in control.
The scooter is also designed to be adaptable, allowing it to function in nearly any country and regulatory environment. All of its specs are adjustable in real-time – something I discovered as my scooter suddenly started changing mid-ride. I returned to see Assaf at his keyboard, smiling. Part way through my test ride he remotely granted me extra speed. Then just as quickly as it was granted, to scooter lord taketh away. Suddenly I was gifted extra features like cruise control. All with the remote click of a button.
As Assaf explained:
“If you have a simple scooter like those used today and local regulations change, you have to pull back your entire fleet. With our system, you can change everything remotely to comply with new laws.”
I pressed Assaf for technical specs, but he couldn’t reveal too much proprietary info yet. Even so, I can tell you that the direct drive motor chosen by Superpedestrian is definitely leagues above what I’ve seen on other scooters.
With a background designing electric vehicles myself, I can see that the company is using the motor well below its limit, which helps them achieve better efficiency than other scooters that operate right at their design limits, or even past them (resulting in the disposable nature of so many consumer-grade electric scooters).
In fact, Assaf explained how the company’s approach to tackling efficiency resulted in creating the perfect scooter designed for long-term fleet use:
“We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve almost doubled the range of our scooter for the same amount of charge compared to your average scooter today. And consider that nearly half of revenues of some scooter companies are spent on charging, think of what that does for a fleet operator’s bottom line.”
Those efficiency gains come from a careful selection of hardware and a refined software integration that helps to eek out every bit of range possible for the same amount of stored energy. Superpedestrian writes all of their own software to run each component of the scooter instead of relying on off-the-shelf solutions found en masse in Asia. The scooters operate at a higher voltage than any other scooter I’ve seen, which results in less wasted energy by operating the motor in a more efficient regime.
Each component is developed and optimized in-house, with extreme levels of testing and validation at their Cambridge R&D center. Assaf showed me room after room of custom test equipment, from dynamometers for engine testing to load testers that perform long-term riding cycles of vehicles when weighed down by simulated passengers weighing in the 95% percentile for both male and female riders.
They have salt fog machines for performing intense corrosion testing and insulated test chambers for extreme weather testing. After seeing their extensive test center, I’d wager Superpedestrian does better cold weather testing than Tesla did on the Model 3 before rollout.
And to ensure that all of their hardware is manufactured in their worldwide factories to the same high standards to which it is developed, the company even builds their own testing equipment to be used in the factories.
Superpedestrian has all the same work going into the development of their electric bicycles as they do for their scooters, though I didn’t get a chance to test ride their e-bike this time. Hopefully that one will be coming soon.
Vehicle intelligence is what sets these e-bikes and e-scooters apart
These are impressively designed and robust industrial-grade vehicles, that’s for sure. But like Assaf explained, it takes more than just an effective vehicle to solve the problem of managing massive fleets. And that’s where Superpedestrian truly shines.
With their close location and association with MIT, Superpedestrian has taken advantage of some of the brightest engineers in the industry to design a completely new level of intelligence into their vehicles.
Today’s electric bicycle and scooter sharing companies rely on a system of simple scooters that require incredibly inefficient and labor-intensive maintenance. Current scooters communicate with their fleet operators by usually reporting back just location and battery charge. When something breaks on scooters like those used by Lime and Bird, it is up to riders to notify the company.
Not only does that mean multiple riders might try to ride a broken scooter before anyone lets the company know that there’s a problem, but then each scooter requires multiple visits by a technician to locate it, diagnose issues, retrieve it, repair it, then return it to service. The entire system is terribly inefficient and will never scale effectively to truly solve massive transportation needs.
Not only are Superpedestrian’s vehicles designed to higher standards to last much longer without maintenance, but since all machines eventually break, Superpedestrian designed their scooters and e-bikes to handle most problems themselves.
All components talk to each other and self monitor. As soon as a problem is encountered, the vehicle’s own central computer is notified and the scooter attempts to isolate the issue. Using a number of self repair programs, the scooter can actually solve and repair by itself many of the common problems that sideline other scooters, such as battery voltage imbalances that are a common issue in electric vehicles.
A number of sensors also help prevent damage before it even occurs. According to Assaf:
“For example, consider water ingress. If water somehow enters the scooter, the system identifies and reports back where it happened. If it poses a risk to the electronics, which then poses a risk to the rider and the vehicle, it immediately opens the circuit so that there will be no damage to either.”
Self-protection and self-repair works for many common issues, but for larger issues that can’t be handled by the scooter itself, the computer reports to the cloud and asks for remote maintenance. That flushes all of the operating systems in the multiple embedded computers and reloads them – another advantage of designing all the hardware and software internally.
“Between those two things, self-diagnostic and self-protection as well as remote maintenance, we address over 55% of all technical issues without human intervention. Think of what that means for a massive fleet that you own, where the biggest expense is humans and manual labor.”
While the scooter and cloud can handle the majority of issues completely automatically, there are still some problems that can’t be handled remotely. To make those repairs more efficient, the central computer reports to the cloud exactly what the problem is and what the correct solution will be.
As Assaf explained it, “It’s like if your immune system could talk directly to your doctor, telling him or her what is wrong and what it needs.” For example, Superpedestrian’s vehicles can remotely inform their operator that they need a new motor controller, or that the battery has reached its end of life. That saves a diagnostic trip, and means that a technician can arrive and perform immediate service on location. With a modular system designed from the ground up to integrate together, a component swap takes just minutes.
That means fewer scooters break down, when they do there are fewer trips required by human technicians, and each trip is optimized for the shortest repair time. That layered system is what Superpedestrian believes will solve current problems with scooter sharing services and help meet current as well as rapidly expanding urban-mobility demands.
I think Superpedestrian’s work has massive implications for the micro-mobility and shared EV industry.
Studies have shown that despite a vocal minority, the vast majority of Americans are loving electric scooter and bicycle sharing services.
The largest micro-mobility companies, Bird and Lime, are both reportedly worth over $1B. Major players like Ford, GM, Uber and Lyft are all getting into the game. Every indication is that such vehicles are here to stay, and the industry will only continue to grow.
With urban transportation demands growing at such a large rate, these personal electric vehicles can be an incredibly important part of the solution. However, current operations such as those run by Bird and Lime simply aren’t sufficiently sustainable or scalable. With disposable scooters and a huge human workforce required to keep those scooters on the road, the current system can’t meet future demand.
But newer, purpose-built industrial scooters that can manage themselves and vastly reduce the amount of human intervention required to keep them running could very well be a game changer.
With Superpedestrian’s rapid pace of development, you could be seeing these changes in cities near you sooner than you might think. And if you haven’t given shared electric bicycles and scooters a try yet, consider it. You’d be surprised how easily you can get around without a 2-ton vehicle around you, and how much more enjoyable it can be.
What do you think about Superpedestrian’s approach and the future of micro-mobility in cities? Let us know in the comments below.
Subscribe to Electrek on YouTube for exclusive videos and subscribe the podcast.