The future of personal electric vehicles isn’t here — yet
It was merely a couple of years ago that e-scooter and bike rental companies were exploding in the US, poised to swallow cities whole. Were it not for the current pandemic, business models would probably be shaking themselves out and setting the stage for personal electric vehicles (PEVs) as a permanent fixture of urban life.
It’s hard to say what will happen once American cities reopen permanently, except that companies like Uber and Lime will continue to suffer for a while, if they can keep their rental services afloat at all. There’s a greater issue on the horizon however: whether the current crop of PEVs can win the public’s heart and confidence.
Scooters continue to have fundamental technical limitations, namely battery life and durability. A Lime-S, for example, can go about 20 miles or so on a single charge. That sounds great until you understand that on top of it being a shared vehicle, range can fluctuate drastically based on temperature, rider weight, and terrain.
Accidents and breakdowns are unlikely during the average ride, but they do happen, and can be a huge hazard to riders and pedestrians, or at least a person’s travel time. Subjecting a scooter to heavy daily use grinds their longevity to nothing — rental firms typically have to replace units every few months, sometimes faster.
That said, companies like Bird are working on improving these figures. And if you can afford it, you can already buy superior scooters outright from vendors like eWheels.com. You might spend anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a whopping $6,500 on the Dualtron X, which tops 55 mph.
Among PEVs, scooters do have some distinct advantages. They’re dead simple to learn above all — perhaps even easier than a bike. Lighter models are foldable and hand-portable, even if the better ones are often 40 pounds or more. Plus they’re just plain fun, regardless of whether you’re cruising park paths or sidewalks.
Those battery and durability issues need to be improved industry-wide, though, if people are going to treat them as a reliable, obvious form of transportation. The growth of personally-owned models demands a better support network too, something akin to what car and bike owners enjoy. Most for-purchase scooter makers originate outside North America and have little to no presence here. So unless you’re in a place like New York City or Los Angeles, good luck getting your Dualtron or Turbowheel fixed without paying shipping costs — or doing it yourself, naturally.
The importance of support came to the fore recently in the world of electric skateboards, following the bankruptcy of Boosted. If people are aware of e-skating it’s probably because of Boosted, which became synonymous with the field thanks to celebrities like Casey Neistat. I won’t go into the reasons for their bankruptcy here, but with their sudden demise, there are now thousands of Boosted owners scrambling for parts and service alternatives.
Skateboards are still an overlooked option when it comes to PEVs. They’re certainly more portable than scooters, and repair isn’t such an issue. It’s a lot cheaper to ship a 20-pound board, and many repairs are simple DIY tasks if you have the parts handy. They’re arguably the coolest option too, both in terms of how strangers see you and how it feels to ride. There’s a sense of surfing and total freedom that’s difficult to match.
Other barriers to adoption though include the learning curve, and naturally, safety. I’ve taken a few hard falls off of a Boosted Stealth, which despite happening at moderate speeds left me with lingering injuries. Without protection, people riding at speeds they can’t run out may end up with concussions, broken bones, or torn muscles.
Reliability is a concern too. While the situation is generally improving, sites like Reddit’s r/electricskateboarding are peppered with anecdotes of power cutoffs, trucks breaking, or even decks snapping. The number is low enough for enthusiasts, but probably too high for the public at large. You have to pick specific brands like Backfire, Exway, or Lacroix to be confident, and choose all-terrain models if you’re planning to ride anything but the smoothest of roads. I was once told I was doing it wrong by taking my Stealth on the sidewalk — yet that was the only practical option given local laws and road conditions.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen or heard of Onewheels, which get over terrain issues (literally) by rolling on a thick, self-balancing go-kart wheel. They’re built like tanks, spin on a dime, and are even better at conveying the sensation of surfing. Diehards refer to it as floating. I’ll confess that I’ve lusted after them — much to the horror of my wife — having seen many a YouTube video of people gliding effortlessly through streets and trails.
In reality the learning curve is even tougher here, since while the boards automatically balance forward and backward, you control them by leaning in those directions and they lack the inherent stability of a four-wheeled board. You can also find many a story of people pushing motors too hard and nosediving, which without third-party add-on wheels (e.g. Fangs) is a guaranteed run-off or crash.
Nosedives could probably be solved with more powerful batteries and motors, but that learning curve is likely to remain an obstacle. So is price — even the short-range Onewheel Pint starts at $950, and that’s before common accessories like Fangs, fenders, or railguards. The model you really want, the XR, is a whopping $1,799 new but liable to cost you $2,000-plus before tax when it’s kitted out. That’s a hard sell when people could pick up a quality e-bike for the same cost.
I’ve side-stepped e-bikes so far, perhaps unfairly. They’re generally easier to get repaired, and if you can ride a conventional bike you can handle a juiced version. They also tend to get fantastic range if you’re willing to pedal a little, and unlike most other options can be easily modified to carry cargo and passengers. Bikes with the right tires can hold traction in rain and snow alike.
Even here there are problems, mind. While you can get a Lectric XP for as little as $899, that’s a relatively low-powered bike that’s only sold direct to consumers. Most quality choices start around $1,400–1,600 and can climb to ridiculous heights, topping $2,000 or $3,000. Browsing just now I ran across the Stromer ST5, which at $9,999 should damn well replace a car.
Size and weight must also be considered. Unless you’re renting, every bike stop becomes a hunt for secure parking, which will probably be outside or in a parking garage. In either scenario you’re exposed to theft. Foldable models exist, but are quite heavy and bound to draw frowning stares if you take them on a train or bus.
Among fans, electric unicycles (EUCs) are sometimes seen as the panacea to the downsides of PEVs. They’re not light, but per-pound they offer some of the best range, speed, and maneuverability you can find. Check out New York City madman Tishawn Fahie, who pre-pandemic was careening through traffic at speeds over 30 mph. Top-end units can travel as far as 50 to 70 miles per charge.
EUCs would probably be everywhere if it weren’t for the dual whammies of support and the harshest possible learning curve. There are only three major brands out there — Inmotion, Gotway, and King Song — all of which are based primarily in China. While they’re pretty reliable, changing tires can be a pain, and only the largest North American cities might have a third-party repair shop.
Learning to ride an EUC is in some ways safer than a Onewheel, but it can take days or even weeks of committed practice to start rolling in public. Early practice involves steps as small as hopping one-footed alongside a wall or fence. That’s comparable to the toughness of learning a bicycle as a child, and for busy adults, the free time may not exist.
Where does that leave us? Waiting for industries to sort themselves out. The period we’re in is comparable to the pre-Tesla era of electric cars, or the pre-iPhone era of smartphones — while people were certainly enjoying their Nokias and Blackberries, smartphones were in dire need of polish and technological innovation to bring them into the mainstream.
I expect all of the above PEVs to persist in one form or another. We are however waiting for the first company to make a truly portable, reliable, safe, and affordable option for the masses.