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AutonoMusings - Scooters, Stunt-bots, and Dam-good AI

AutonoMusings - Scooters, Stunt-bots, and Dam-good AI
By Joshua Ouellette • Issue #10 • View online
After spending years in the autonomous vehicle space working with Waymo and Uber’s autonomous vehicle group, Anne Widera has been working with clients to explore the electric scooter industry and is very excited about this newest budding micro-mode ride-share system. As the streets become more and more crowded (as if that’s possible), there’s profit and political incentive alike to maximize every square inch of existing roadways and parking areas. Enter the humble scooter — vilified by some as a public nuisance, while championed by others as a cheap, low carbon footprint means of getting around urban centers quickly.
Anne spoke with AutonoMusings about how the future of America’s roadways may soon be less crowded with more (smaller, and sometimes driverless) vehicles – perhaps with scooters leading the pack.
Anne, how important do you think electric scooters are to the future of transportation?
I think they’re extremely important. I see scooters as an early illustrative example of how things might shape up with autonomous vehicles as they approach maturity. It’s the first time we’re seeing large-scale asset owners like Bird and Lime negotiating with existing large-scale demand generators, like Uber and Lyft. Do the two sides work together or compete against each other? What kinds of deals get struck? That makes the market important to watch, whether it ends up being big or not.
Are you saying that Bird and Lime will just be large asset owners?
I’m not not saying that :) This has been one of the questions that autonomous passenger car strategists have been mulling over for years: how does the transportation value chain end up evolving once large pools of assets need to be centrally managed as part of a broad transportation portfolio? For airlines, this has evolved so that most airlines use third parties to generate demand (OTAs like Expendia, Google Flights) and focus on operational excellence (passenger experience, route/plane selection, fuel hedging, pricing, etc) to compete. Rental cars are the same story. Scooter companies today don’t seem to have any trouble generating strong utilization just through their own apps. 
But once competition increases, I’m not sure if that will hold. At that point, they have a choice to make: compete with Uber, Lyft, Google Maps and other strong demand generation endpoints to move up into that segment or, work with those players and focus on competing via operational excellence and hardware innovation. It’s just like if Waymo or Cruise were to launch self-driving cars tomorrow–should they work with Uber and Lyft to drive demand and maximize utilization on their assets? Or cut out the platform and take the risk that Uber/Lyft/others move to more directly compete with them? There’s an element of game theory at play here too–what happens if one of the players works with the platforms and the other doesn’t? This is exactly why I find scooters fascinating–whatever happens here will (or at least should) absolutely inform what the self-driving car technology providers choose to do as they get ready to bring their vehicles to market.
What are some of the other hurdles that scooters need to clear in order to become more ubiquitous in the ride-share space?
There needs to be enough of them to be reasonably useful, so that you can walk out and expect there to be one nearby. Plus, the use of scooters is very geographically dependent. If it’s cold, snowy, or rainy, you’re probably not going to take a scooter. How are scooters going to work in a place where it’s only feasible to use them six months out of the year? But overall, people seem to love scooters and as prices come down I think we’ll just see that increase. Sure, there is the nerdiness factor. But, I’d never recommend on betting “image” over “inherent laziness” when looking at transportation markets. Scooters could be the first step on our (inevitable?) journey to the Wall-E future of electric pods for everyone for every trip. That future can be arrived at in one of two ways: bikes/scooters up, and cars down. We are seeing autonomy develop on cars, but I imagine a future where that tech starts being workable on vehicles that look much more like scooters or bikes. So the self-driving tech comes cars down, but the hardware actually comes from bikes up as this supply chain for scooters, e-bikes, etc starts to mature and improve.
Where do you think city administrators across the country fall in terms of supporting scooters?
They’re torn. There are people who absolutely love scooters, and there are people who absolutely hate them. Public officials hate things that make people angry – and no matter what they do in this case someone is going to be angry. A lot of public officials elsewhere are taking a wait-and-see approach regarding what happens in San Francisco. That’s a low-risk strategy for them. In San Francisco, as much as we’re a progressive city, public officials are aware that once the horse is out of the stable, it can be very difficult to put a bridle on it. So, I think the cautious approach that regulators are taking now (with a strict cap) isn’t necessarily where we end up–once companies have some time to figure out parking, helmets, and a few other issues I wouldn’t be surprised to see SF and other cities begin to embrace scooters and other small EVs.
What do you think about a hubless versus hub model?
Hubless makes sense once you get to a certain density. People don’t want to walk very far. The downside of a hubless model is, of course, that scooters end up being left in bad places, which makes the environment less functional. Hubs are great since you can almost guarantee you’ll always be pretty close to a scooter or a bike. I can see a hybrid emerging, where you’ll have zones for people to park their scooters, which can be much more widespread than physical docks. 
There’s also a fair amount of resistance from some drivers toward sharing the road or sidewalks with scooters. How do you combat that mentality?
The road is soon going to be filled with many new types of vehicles, from electric scooters to slow rolling delivery robots, to e-bikes and autonomous vehicles. We can choose to look at people on scooters as people who aren’t taking up an extra car in traffic, or adding an additional five minutes to an Uber pool. Hopefully, people realize that the more micro-modes of transportation we support, the more use we can get out of our existing road infrastructure. We should be supporting non-emission modes of transportation that meet peoples’ everyday needs in the city as opposed to their occasional need to drive to Tahoe – which is what owning an SUV in the city essentially is. It’s up to the scooter companies, transportation platforms, groups like SF Bike Coalition (which has been doing amazing work on bike infrastructure and safety for decades) and cities to help drivers see this. And honestly, as more people try out an e-Bike or a scooter, I think that empathy will start to set in.
Thanks, Anne, for sharing your perspective with us!

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Joshua Ouellette

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