We're in the Nokia 3310 era of micromobility

While Reilly Brennan is looking for the Ford F150 of scooters, I think that's the wrong way to think about this.

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Micromobility vehicles are like phones on wheels.

At the moment, they're still largely dumb. The Xiaomi Mi365 was the best selling scooter of 2018. It has no locks, connectivity or intelligence.

It's the scooter equivalent of the Nokia 3310: cheap, robust, and easy to use.

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What will the iPhone of this space look like? How will we know when we see it?

My hunch is that it'll be:

  • Fun and Stylish: we like vehicles to be reflective of us. As such, we deny the importance of aesthetics and sex appeal at our peril. I love Bird's efforts in this area.

  • A computing platform: Autonomy, safety and social engagement will be apps.

  • Shared: While privately owned vehicles will be where the bulk of the micromobility sales happen, I think the ease of access of shared vehicles will supercharge their usage and see more trips.

Interested in learning more? Sign up below, check out the Micromobility Podcast with Horace Dediu and myself, or come and join us at Micromobility Europe in Berlin on October 1st.

Why the future of transport looks like scooters not supersonic jets

When I used to visit the library as a 9 year old, I’d invariably bee-line for the section that had the books on cars, boats or planes, pick one out and turn to the last page.

That was where the authors visualised what they thought the future of transport looked like.

I still can feel the giddiness of finding incredible concept supercars, Seaquest style submarines or (in books from the heady 60’s) nuclear powered supersonic jets.

The future was going to be fast. Sleek. Sexy. Aspirations of something ‘better’.

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And they were almost always wrong.

We are all fallible to fantastical futures. I was definitely the most prone.

In 2015, I joined Uber, thinking that we would be rolling out autonomous cars within the next year or two. I joined in New Zealand knowing that high transport and labour costs made it a high probability target market for testing and deployment of large fleets of AV’s. I dreamed of families being whisked around on quiet streets, paying a subscription for their travel similar to their smartphone and enabling a golden age of cheap mobility for all. The future would be sweet!

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It was clear pretty quickly that my timelines were way off. Even today, there are no driverless vehicles planned for the market till at least 2022.

Which makes the recent explosion of electric scooters and ebikes all the more fascinating.

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When I left Uber I paired up with Horace Dediu, famed analyst, and started the Micromobility Podcast, exploring the disruptive potential of these new vehicles. They have the potential to change everything we thought we knew about the future of urban transport.

Horace made his name as the analyst who ‘spotted the iPhone’. He had been at Nokia, and prior to that, studied under Clayton Christensen, the creator of disruptive innovation theory at Harvard.

When the iPhone launched, it was dismissed by Nokia and Microsoft, the two largest vendors of phone hardware and software in the world at the time. But Horace saw more than a phone - he saw a computing platform. They performed worse that almost all computers available at the time, but it had one key differentiator: you could carry it with you.

Phones improved at the same rate as computers had in the 1990s. Today, most people use their phones as their primary computing devices, and the market for phones is an order of magnitude bigger than the personal computer industry ever was.

In 2018 Horace had been looking at the car industry for three years trying to identify what a ‘disruptive’ entry for the world of transport looked like. Given its size and relatively imperviousness to technological innovation over the years, it was a logical large industry for Apple to bring its attention to after the phone.

What we spotted with electric bikes and scooters was what we saw with the introduction of the iPhone - a product that is underserving in a lot of key dimensions (can't do long journeys! very unsafe! no infrastructure!) but nails a core job perfectly: short trips.

Turns out, human's tend to travel short distances an order of magnitude more than they do long. If you plot our trip distances on a graph, they look like this:

The box on the left has more trips than the box on the right.

The box on the left has more trips than the box on the right.

Yet almost all our 'options' for travel aren't very good at these distances. Walking is good up to around 1 mile. Bikes make us sweaty and don't have safe infrastructure to ride on. Cars get really congested if you have a lot of them doing short trips in a confined space.

Enter the humble electric scooter and e-bike.

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They're typically very well suited to these shorter journeys, especially if they're paired to a network and can be easily rented with a smartphone. In fact, if we look at the data from San Francisco, you can see the 'fingerprint' of different modes in terms of how they're used,

Scooters are best used for super short trips.

Bikes for ones a little longer.

E-bikes and mopeds for trips further still.

They've exploded in popularity, both as rented and personally owned vehicles, for a few reasons:

  • They're now really cheap: When the Segway was released in 2001, it was a $9,000 device. A scooter with a 40 mile range and ‘enough’ power to get up to 20mph these days is around $600 - a 15x reduction.

  • They're far more convenient: You don't have to think about parking, fuel, maintenance, licencing or insurance for these vehicles.

  • They pair well with your other modes of travel: If you take Uber's and the train when it makes sense, then these suit these shorter trips that would take a long time in a congested space (especially where the wait time is 5+ mins).

They're not perfect, and don't suit the needs of all consumers. I get it.

When the iPhone was launched, it was dismissed because Microsoft Exchange, the predominant form of work email server, wasn't supported. These vehicles are interesting because they have the same attributes as these early smartphones did when they were launched:

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  • They're very short lived, which means they're replaced very quickly. When a car is designed, it takes 5-7 years to get it to production. Bird is shipping new models with improved tech/features every 3-6 months. They’re iterating VERY fast compared to any other vehicles type we have.

  • They're getting intelligent. See the latest announcement from Segway of its autonomous shared scooter that'll drive itself back to the charging station. It’s an autonomous vehicle for $1500 - or around 100x (+) cheaper than a testing autonomous car.

  • They're addressing material needs for cities - most cities around the world are struggling with congestion. The existing car-fuelled paradigm can't scale as the rest of the world urbanises. These new vehicles offer a solution that more and more cities will actively encourage.

While they're not sexy, sleek or fast, they're a rethink of the very fundamentals of how we get around.

If my 9 year old self could see me now, I think he'd be pretty chuffed that this is what I get to be working on.

To learn more about micromobility, come and join us in Berlin on October 1st at Micromobility Europe or listen in to the podcast.