Micromobility and What’s Driving Its Rise in Popularity
We have been used to having bikes in our cities for some time, but now one, two and three-wheeled transport is taking off on an entirely new level. Electric (e-) micro vehicles, including e-scooters, e-bikes, e-unicycles, and e-trikes have all joined in. While it may have started as a simple and fun way to get around, it is now becoming clear that micromobility also offers many advantages over traditional motor vehicles.
One such advantage is that micromobility is cheaper than conventional transport. And although the price of many micro vehicles has previously proved a barrier to their adoption, the shared and dockless versions of the electric transport (particularly e-bikes and e-scooters)—rented using smartphone apps—have since brought about a massive boost in their accessibility and popularity. Ultimately, it is now proving an environmentally-conscious grassroots success story that has witnessed incredible growth.
And all of this potential for micromobility has been fast-tracked by the lockdowns and other demands brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic (a silver lining that many other technologies have likewise benefitted from, including renewables). With many people across Europe having been forced to work from home, 2020 saw the start of far fewer workers having to worry about long commutes. Micromobility has enabled them to make their required daily trips (almost exclusively to essential shops) with fewer wheels than before. Bike shops were inundated with business, and European e-mobility startups have gone from strength to strength.
Voi, a Swedish company that is pioneering dockless scooters, has continued to prove successful.
Micromobility is becoming increasingly popular, but concerns over safety are just one of its pitfalls. Pictured: a man and woman cross a road on a shared electric scooter.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
What’s Holding Micromobility Back?
While micromobility has clearly taken off across Europe, it hasn’t yet become widely accepted. There are still some key things standing in its way, and only when these areas have been adequately addressed will the mode of transportation be able to really get moving.
Again, while micromobility has indeed taken off in recent years, cities have lagged behind in building the necessary infrastructure to support their use. As well as a more comprehensive network of connected bike lanes, there is also a requirement for better parking solutions for both personally-owned and shared modes of transport. Micromobility vehicles navigate the roadways of cars and pavements of pedestrians but, as yet, don’t truly have a place.
On the surface, e-scooters seem like an environmentally-friendly alternative to motor vehicles or even public transport. However, initial models don't last long enough, so the fleet turnover can be significant (adding to the already-enormous amount of electronic waste that comes from old consumer devices). More efforts are required to ensure that a charging and/or battery swapping infrastructure is put in place.
Micromobility poses safety concerns due to the convergence of the transport and pedestrians. Pictured: a group of parked electric scooters on a pavement, one of which lies on its side, making it a potential trip hazard
Image Credit: Pixabay
E-scooters pose a significant danger to pedestrians due to the current lack of appropriate infrastructure and regulations. There has been a huge volume of pedestrians involved in crashes as people illegally ride on pavements and dart around traffic. What’s more, e-scooters can be hazardous when not in use as dockless scooters are carelessly discarded on footpaths (such as in the above photograph), creating obstructions to passersby.
What Are the Most Recent Innovations in Micromoblity?
With such fast-paced growth, we have seen multiple innovations come forward in the last 12 months from various companies, many of which are working towards solving some of the barriers to micromobility adoption and its inclusion in Europe’s cities. The next sub-sections focus on three major examples of such projects.
Unlimited Engineering’s E-bike Conversion kits
Unlimited Engineering has come up with a solution for those who aren’t sure whether e-mobility is for them: its e-bike conversion kit. The company, which first hit the market with its electric skateboard back in 2016, launched its new crowdfunding campaign to fully fund its e-bike conversion kit in June, 2020.
The kit offers a simple drop-in solution that can convert any bike to an electric one in minutes. There are just a few components, a wheel with a built-in hub motor, a battery pack, and a wireless pedal-assist sensor. The kit offers a top speed of 20 kilometres an hour and an up-to-85-kilometre range. The company has also added a real-wheel motor for added performance.
Voi’s Dockless Charging Hubs
Bumblebee, a spin-out company that was born out of research at Imperial College London's Wireless Power Lab in its Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, aims to commercialise wireless power technology. And accordingly, Voi has integrated Bumble Bee’s ultra-thin and lightweight technology into its scooters.
The wireless power technology involves a thin, PCB-based coil and control unit that is attached to the ground and connected to the grid. The charging hub can then transfer power wirelessly to the receiving coil and charger unit on the scooter. Bumblebee claims that its solution offers a charging efficiency that is equivalent to that of a wired charging service, and one that can achieve three times the wireless range and tolerance when compared to other solutions.
The Internet of Things and other connective technologies are key to making micromobility accessible to users. Pictured: a smartphone app is used to find and rent electric scooters
Image credit: Bigstock
Voi’s Use of Arkessa Connectivity and Ericsson’s IoT Solutions
As touched on earlier, managing a fleet of dockless scooters or bikes is a significant logistical challenge, but cellular IoT (Internet of Things) can help drive revenue and deliver operational efficiency.
Connected devices, however, only work when there is reliable connectivity. To help keep Voi’s fleet moving reliably and with global connectivity, the company has integrated Arkessa’s connectivity technology, powered by Ericsson’s IoT Accelerator. During the lifetime of each micro vehicle, one single integrated SIM (less commonly known as a ‘subscriber identification module’) is able to connect to different service providers to ensure that Voi can gain full global connectivity management.
Such a level of fleet management is helping Voi to expand to new markets and create next-generation vehicles.
Luna’s Pedestrian Detection Systems
In another Voi collaboration, Luna, a Dublin-based startup, has provided an e-scooter computer vision system. The system uses safety tools from modern cars so that its system of cameras and sensors can enable scooters to learn and respond to their environments.
While such technology itself isn’t new, integrating it into e-scooters gives local authorities a real-time camera feed that can enable them to more easily monitor rider behaviour. In the first instance, the new devices in Voi’s scooters aim to detect people and objects in the scooter’s path. Thousands of pictures of people were used to train the artificial intelligence (AI) systems (such a method is also used to train the intelligent safety braking systems in many modern cars).
The unit is smaller and cheaper to produce than equivalent technologies, and combining Luna’s system with GPS and AI could lead to additional improvements for e-mobility safety and practicality. The data could even one day create smart micro-vehicles that will slow themselves down in the event of a collision or lock out people who don’t follow local transportation rules.
In the meantime, a test fleet of e-scooters with pedestrian detection has been launched in Northampton, England.
With the correct infrastructure and support, micromobility could have a more permanent place in our cities. Pictured: a busy parking area for both electric scooters and bicycles
Image credit: Pixabay
Will Micromobility Make Its Mark on Our Cities?
As people continue to flood back onto the streets, following the increasing rollout of COVID vaccines at the time of writing, we will certainly see more electric transport being used.
For instance, pop-up bike lanes may become more permanent features, as confirmed in Paris, and more forms of micromoblity may well join in the race. All this could increase access to affordable mobility while decreasing pollution and congestion. However, the leading companies will need to work together with authorities to create the space and solutions required.
With the right technology and supporting frameworks, micromobility could make a real contribution towards making our cities cleaner, quieter and more accessible. However, we also need to ensure safety and sustainability. If we can gain from advanced data-sharing platforms, adaptive infrastructure solutions, and a real understanding of the lifetime impact of micromobility services, we could well be on to a winner.