Opinion

Why Scooters Won

If you live in a city you’ve had to deal with the overnight proliferation of scooters on popular street corners, abandoned on trains, and zooming through traffic. They are seemingly everywhere, and market factors suggest they are here to stay. Recently, several prominent scooter companies received permits to operate in the city of San Francisco, while Portland increased the number of scooters on the streets, and traditional automaker Mercedes Benz is now entering the scooter market. However, the idea of portable, electric, and speedy transportation is not a new one.

Two powerful technological advancements have allowed scooters to succeed where their predecessor, the Segway, failed. In the early 2000s, Segways were hyped as revolutionary – its creator, Dean Kamen, dubbed it the “world’s first self-balancing human transporter.”

The Segway, formally nicknamed Ginger, debuted in 2001 and moved at a top speed of 12 mph with no brakes, instead relying on sensory movement from its riders to determine the desired speed and direction. The Segway premiered to an amazing amount of publicity with the expectation that it would replace cars during short journeys and according to some be “bigger than the internet.” We all know that didn’t happen. Instead, the internet mapped the streets while Segways became part of a bygone era.

Battery technology and the internet of things were two interconnected technological developments empowering more devices to come online and allowing long sought-after futuristic technologies to reach their potential.

When the Segway first debuted, it utilized the NiMH battery, instead of a lithium ion battery, and this resulted in the Segway’s weight and large frame. While the Segway was much smaller than a car, it was still too heavy to keep at home or carry up a flight of stairs. The batteries of today are rapidly advancing, offering more powerful and lighter batteries with the ability to power consumer devices. Lithium-ion batteries are also more easily recycled and faster to recharge. Advances in battery technology solved the issue related to the bulk of the Segway, but another big problem always loomed for the Segway owner: what to do with it when you arrived where you were going?

To address this problem, the internet of things and the sharing economy stepped in. As batteries improved and costs were lowered, more portable devices — namely, the smartphone — were able to come online, stay online, and connect us to everyday resources, like transportation. E-Scooters and E-Bikes are one of many transit options, including traditional technology like buses and trains. The big shift is that all of these resources are now accessed through a smartphone, which is also powered with a lithium-ion battery. The development of economical, lighter, and more powerful batteries has allowed the internet of things to proliferate. In turn, these batteries also allowed E-Scooters to become lighter, economical, and competitive among other transit options to commuters.

The Segway to e-scooter transformation is not the first time we’ve seen a first-generation product precede the more advanced and capable version of itself. Many concepts ahead of their time didn’t have the necessary battery and connective technology to be considered sustainable.

The Saturn EV1, for example, was the first electric car launched by General Motors in 1996. The EV1 was on the market for just three years before it was cancelled in 1999. Building these electric cars involved large and expensive batteries that did not provide enough range.

Today’s version of the Saturn EV1 is the Tesla Model 3 – a significantly more capable, faster car with a much lighter battery. In early years, Tesla invested heavily in the development of a superior lithium-ion battery that could fuel their dream of an electric sports car. Today, Tesla’s battery technology has taken them off the road and is powering people’s homes.

The Segway and EV1 were both far ahead of their time, but new battery technology made these future technologies a reality. Competitive, better batteries are transforming nearly every sector of the economy and supporting the proliferation of cleaner sharing economies across the globe.

Dr. Steven Murray is Group Vice President and Principal Engineer in the Materials and Corrosion practice at Exponent.

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