Bumpy ride in Europe for e-scooter companies
Electric scooter startups have been grappling with an unexpected problem that is laying waste to the two-wheeled vehicles: Europe's cobbled streets.
Scooter companies have rapidly expanded across the continent, targeting tourist spots such as Paris and Lisbon, and raising hundreds of millions of euro in venture capital funding.
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But while the first scooter startups began in California, where footpaths are predominantly flat, Europe is full of cobbled streets built hundreds of years ago.
Users had uncomfortable rides at best, or scooter-crippling breakages at worst.
"Lisbon is pretty tough for that in particular," said Wind Mobility chief executive Eric Wang. "You only have the promenade that's flat and smooth, but away from that, it becomes quite hilly and cobbled."
Joe Kraus, president of Lime, said he had seen riders adopting standing techniques to deal with cobblestones specifically.
"The simplest one is they actually stand on their toes," he said. "It's amazing but you can't feel the stones as much."
Many of the continent's oldest capital cities also feature very narrow streets - useful for taking a shortcut on a scooter, and near-impossible to navigate for a scooter company's collection truck.
"If a vehicle is detected somewhere as needing refurbishment or repair, you've got to get a technician to that point," said Carlos Bhola, co-founder of Circ, the company he created with Delivery Hero SE co-founder Lukasz Gadowski.
"Sometimes we have to use the subway to get to the vehicle and pick it up."
In popular areas, a single scooter can be used for about 10 journeys per day. The inevitable deterioration of wheels or steering columns can render them useless, and dumped on sidewalks, or in rivers and canals.
To solve these problems, scooter companies have been building their own proprietary models.
Lime's latest iterations have bigger wheels and robust suspension, modifications that are also favoured by its competitors.
Vehicles from companies such as Bird Rides are now almost too heavy to lift by hand, making them harder to steal.
Some use heavy-duty bicycle brakes. Tier Mobility, one of the largest European scooter companies, has added two wheel-mounted brake pads on its latest model, in addition to electric brakes.
Newer designs use as few components as possible to further increase a scooter's lifespan and reduce the need to store stocks of spare parts in maintenance centres.
"Our tests show that our new models will last one or two years," said Patrick Studener, head of Bird's European and Asian business.
A number of other companies, including Wind, aim to make their scooters last for two years.
The approach to Europe is an insight into how mobility startups are thinking twice about their previous model of moving fast and breaking scooters.
Now, startups are concluding that heavy-duty proprietary hardware and swappable batteries will help them make money, or at least curtail losses.
Besides their more resilient frames, some new models of scooters now also come with swappable batteries. Most existing units include large power packs fixed inside the vehicle that cannot be removed. As a result, the only way to charge them is to either collect them all each evening and recharge them overnight - which Tier does, in addition to maintenance - or have some of them juiced up by gig economy workers.
"Swappable batteries reduce charging costs and should reduce asset depreciation," said Paul Murphy, a partner at VC firm Northzone, which invested in Tier. "Consumers will benefit from more fully-charged vehicles, and operators will benefit from better unit economics."
The ability to swap out empty batteries in the street and have the scooter back in service right away will be "a game-changer" for the industry, said Lawrence Leuschner, CEO and co-founder of Tier.
"The operating costs will be a lot less when you can swap on site."
But even as hardware developments show promise, other hurdles remain.
In Ireland, electric scooters are not permitted under current road legislation. New laws are being drafted to facilitate them.
In the UK, where ride-hailing, the gig economy and electric bicycle sharing schemes are a mainstay of city life, scooters also remain illegal on public roads.
The government said in March it was opening "the biggest regulatory review in a generation" of current mobility laws, some of which date back to 1835.
"People who use e-scooters need to be aware it is currently illegal to ride them on the road and the pavement," a spokeswoman for the UK's Department for Transport said. "Safety is at the heart of our road laws."