Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
At a Bay Area summit devoted to electric scooters and other new mobility devices, fans evangelized about the potential of technology. But safety was an afterthought.
Inside a luminous former factory on the Bay Area waterfront last week, software geeks, VCs, and sundry tech evangelizers zipped around on electric bikes, scooters, and hoverboards. Industry representatives from Jump, Spin, and Lyft hawked their compact transportation widgets. This was the Micromobility Conference, billed online as “an event focused on unbundling the car with lightweight electric vehicles.”
It wasn’t the world’s first summit for aficionados of tiny shared urban conveyances—one in Copenhagen in 2017 might have taken that honor. But the event’s historically resonant setting (an Albert Kahn-designed industrial space that once churned out military jeeps during World War II) and grandiose manifesto signaled a deeper seriousness than the toy-like transport devices might have implied. On the convention’s website, organizers characterized the conference as part of a movement to replace society’s dependence on the automobile with just about anything battery-powered and bike-lane-scaled. Such a shift promises be “a transformation that is not only virtuous but highly profitable.”
Like many manifestations of Silicon Valley’s obsession with disruptive transportation, the (overwhelmingly male) Micromobility Conference invited a healthy amount of disbelief. Near the entrance, two men in button-ups steered a motorized desk around a course of safety cones; another dude took a stumble on gyroscopic skates. On stage, one presenter made bold declarations about the transhumanist potential of the unicycle. Towards the end of the day, a speaker on a panel of venture capitalists half-kidded about the idea of “monetizing walking.”
But the rate of the industry’s growth is no joke. The global explosion of shared bikes and scooters in the past few years amounts to the “the fastest technological adoption in history,” as the event’s website noted. And it’s just getting started. “Logarithmic is the way to go with everything,” explained Micromobility Conference founder Horace Dediu, a tech industry analyst, in his keynote address. He pointed to charts showing the expected rise in adoption of shared electric scooters and their one-to-three-wheeled brethren. “If you’re not measuring in logarithmic, you’re in the wrong business.”
Investors apparently agree. Globally, they’ve plowed more than $5.7 billion into micromobility start-ups over the past four years, a new McKinsey analysis estimates. The epicenter has been China, where the dockless bikesharing craze began in 2015. Startups like Ofo and Mobike produced mountains of easily discarded riding machines—and an alluring new export. This high-tech form of bikesharing, where rides are untethered from rental stations and unlock via smartphone chip, hit U.S. markets in 2017, with thousands of vehicles scattered in American cities by Chinese and domestic competitors.
The Chinese bike bubble didn’t last, but the dockless concept has survived in the torrent of shared scooters that Bird, Lime, and other startups have rained upon cities from Atlanta to Seattle. Now, with big players like Uber, Lyft, and Ford on an acquisitions tear, the U.S. micromobility market could be worth $300 billion by 2030, McKinsey estimates.
But this gold rush will only pay off if certain issues are resolved, including the critical one of rider safety. That topic didn’t seem to get much airtime at the conference, short of some collapsible helmets on display and one 20-minute presentation focused on threats posed by cars to pedestrians and cyclists. The relatively light attention to scooter safety was notable, considering the media attention and regulatory concern that scooter-related injuries have generated. Fun, easy, and cheap to ride, scooters have also proven prone to breaking, crashing, and bucking off riders, which is partly why cities like San Francisco and Denver banned them last year as they attempted to establish rules of the road.
If companies don’t pay mind, little-vehicle-topia could be over before it starts, some attendees believed. “This whole industry will rise and fall with the basic infrastructure of safety,” said Ori Blumenthal, the co-founder and CTO of an Israel-based startup called RideWatch. “I think insurance is another part of that. Otherwise cities won’t allow it.”
Blumenthal was eager to talk about protective measures: His company, RideWatch, plans to offer riders coverage options in the event of a crash or malfunction aboard a shared scooter, bike, and other micro-mode. The product isn’t available yet, but the idea is to sell liability insurance on a per-ride or monthly basis through the yet-to-come RideWatch app, Blumenthal explained, or as an option within another company’s portal.
À la carte transportation insurance isn’t as flashy a concept as, say, pedal-powered pontoon boats for waterway commutes, which was one of many ideas described on stage. But Blumenthal seems to be following the money. Accompanying the flood of Birds, Limes, Skips, and Spins has been a surge of broken bones, concussions, and medical bills. Renting from any of the major scooter apps means riding at your own risk: Clicking through lengthy user agreements waives the companies of any responsibility for a spill. Injury suits have thus proven a challenge, so riders are paying the price.
Blumenthal has zeroed in on these gaps. While health insurance plans will often pay out for injuries suffered on a ride gone wrong, liability is another matter: Most auto and motorcycle insurance plans won’t cover such accidents, and bike insurance is generally an annual purchase. E-scooter trips are often made on a a whim, and riders generally don’t own the vehicles. Traditional insurers haven’t adjusted for this new, legally murky world, Blumenthal said: “There’s just not a lot of data yet.”
Besides cruising the latest wave in VC-backed transportation, RideWatch has also latched onto a trend in the claims business: “algorithmic insurance.” Its rate-setting software would feed on several layers of user data. Where is the scooter is being used—on congested or quiet streets? On a sidewalk, bike lane, or in the midst of traffic? How fast and recklessly is the rider moving? What’s the weather like? In general, Blumenthal said, the safer you scoot, the lower your rates. Personal health data drawn from various fitness apps and wearables could also be blended in as part of a rider’s coverage profile, he explained.
Blumenthal wasn’t the only conference-goer concerned with the finer points of a largely unregulated transportation universe. Jesse Halfon, an attorney who practices automotive and products liability law, had flown into San Francisco from Detroit out of a personal interest in the still-undefined legal framework surrounding shared micro-vehicles. Sort of like the insurance companies, his firm, Dykema, which represents large automakers, hasn’t touched these startups yet, Halfon explained. It’s still a Wild West.
”The fact that we don’t have a standard insurance infrastructure for micromobility products shows how different it is from other markets,” he said. “Any other market, any investor wants to have liability and insurance locked down from the start. Here, we’re a year in, and we’re just seeing startups give you ideas about how to solve it. Which is an indication about how these people are approaching the market. They might talk a big safety game, but at the end of the day, the financial needs—the need to chase users and build networks and effects—takes precedence over the risk.”
But that could be changing, as more hard numbers about injuries emerge and the industry adjusts accordingly. “Safety has to be prioritized over growth,” Travis VanderZanden, the founder and CEO of Bird, said at another tech summit in Los Angeles last week. He also suggested that the industry’s current task is to find a sustainable business model. “2018 was about scaling,” he said. “2019 is about really focusing on the unit economics of the business.”
In the meantime, the mini-vehicle gold rush will likely keep beckoning new prospectors. Back at Micromobility Con, a co-founder of the popular dog-walking app Wag talked up his new modular e-bike startup, Wheels. And two former employees of the traditional docked bikeshare operator Motivate, now both working at two new-mobility startups, reminisced about old times maintaining New York City’s hardy CitiBike fleet. They complained that all the sudden interest from software startups was leaving critical hardware overlooked. A former manager pointed to the apparently fragile wheel hubs on a competitor’s shared bike model. “We tried those,” he said. “They’re just not going to last.”