It’s the diagnosis of Superpedestrian CEO Assaf Biderman that bike- and scooter-share startups know far too little about bikes and scooters.
His Cambridge, MA-based transportation technology startup is announcing its foray into scooter sharing today with what it says is a smart, durable, and efficient scooter of its own. Biderman sees the feverish industry—crowded with well-funded bike- and scooter-share operators—overly focused on expanding into new cities as fast as possible.
“If you look at the operators, their DNA is in getting licenses and customers on the ground. They are not vehicle people. It’s a very different DNA of a company,” Biderman says.
The market-first, technology-later approach has led, by his research, to scooters that need to be repaired or replaced every 30 to 90 days. And teams of locally hired contractors are required to charge the batteries on the scooters once a day—a drag that Biderman says sucks up 40 percent of some companies’ revenues.
“Phase one of an industry like this that grows so fast is almost like a land grab: get licensed quick, get customers, make a statement,” he says. “You grab whatever is on the shelf and make the best of it.”
Superpedestrian—an MIT spinout that makes the Copenhagen Wheel, a rear-wheel, electric-motor system that assists bicyclists—earlier this year launched new technologies that help clients operate their electric bike-share fleets.
Now, Superpedestrian says it has produced an electric scooter powered by the company’s “vehicle intelligence” system, comprised of four onboard computers, as well as sensors, embedded motor controllers, software, and an Internet connection. (That system also powers the Copenhagen Wheel and the company’s e-bikes for fleet operators). Superpedestrian expects the e-scooter model (pictured above) to hit the streets next year.
The company wants to land customers like Lime, Jump (owned by Uber), Ofo, Spin, Bird, and others that have already dotted (or littered) urban areas across the country with scooters people can rent with a smartphone.
From a 10,000-foot view, Biderman says players in the “micro-mobility” sector—meaning lightweight transportation options that provide alternatives to cars—so far have yet to pay much attention to perfecting the e-scooters or bikes that make up their fleets.
After the initial “land grab” phase, Biderman sees the next phase as an opening for transportation technology companies like Superpedestrian: Make the bikes and scooters street-hardy and economical for operators. A third stage for the industry will someday tackle ride quality, he says. But that’s still at least a year or two off, he adds.
Superpedestrian’s scooter will help companies reduce maintenance and charging costs for the scooter fleets, Biderman says. Instead of a breakdown every three months or so, Superpedestrian expects its model to go nine to 18 months before needing work, he says.
Superpedestrian’s scooters will require an electricity top-up every three to seven days, instead of once a day—a boon to scooter companies now spending big on recharging fleet batteries, Biderman says.
Superpedestrian says the company’s scooters and bikes can self-diagnose mechanical issues and issue their own work ticket. Their speed limit and other operating parameters can also be set remotely, an important capability as cities draw up their own local regulations.
All these purported benefits will surely come at a price, presumably in the form of a higher sticker cost than the standard electric scooters on the streets today. Biderman’s position is the scooters will be viable if they stay in the “hundreds of dollars” range, but the business case for his potential customers could depend on whether they think the bet on promised savings clearly outweighs any higher up-front costs.
In May, Superpedestrian announced a move into shared bikes and a $16.5 million investment from Spark Capital, General Catalyst Partners, and other backers, including Charles Kim of Extol Capital and China Renaissance, and Tony Fadell, the former Apple executive and Nest co-founder.
Biderman says Superpedestrian’s partners have deployed the bikes with the company’s vehicle intelligence system. While Biderman would not say where the bikes are operating or name Superpedestrian’s partners, he hints they are big players.
“So far, our customers today are the major ride-hailing operators throughout the world,” Biderman says.
Be it scooters, bikes, or cars, mobility technology companies are in the midst of a consolidation. Uber is reportedly mulling a deal to buy Lime or Bird. (Uber invested in Lime earlier this year and offers the scooters for rent though its app.) Also, Lyft last week closed its deal to buy New-York-based Motivate, which claims to be the country’s largest bike-share company.
Even though they are the mode du jour, “scooters are not the be-all and end-all,” Biderman says. And there are a lot of unanswered questions in the rapidly evolving mobility sector.
How will scooters and bikes deal with self-driving cars? Can there be zero-maintenance bikes or scooters? What ways can sensors and mechanical systems help improve safety in the transportation network of the future?
Biderman might not have all the answers, but if things pan out for Superpedestrian, the startup could play a role in figuring them out.