A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Jul 12, 2019

Robotaxis? Why eBikes and Scooters Are More Likely the Future Of Urban Transport

eBikes and scooters are being used and are evolving as are the rules governing their use.As that real world experience is being analyzed - and appreciated or criticized - autonomous cars are still cautiously inching their way forward.

Recent history suggests that the relatively uncontrolled experiment will succeed more quickly and profoundly than the tentatively controlled approach. JL


Tim Bradshaw reports in the Financial Times:

Self-driving cars are only available to a few hundred people in a handful of sites around the world. Meanwhile, electric bikes and scooters are becoming ubiquitous in dozens of cities. Thousands of e-bikes and scooters are out there and the vehicles are evolving quickly. Rental operators send data back to authorities about where and how their fleets are being used. That is prompting changes to urban infrastructure.This approach fits the Silicon Valley ethos of “learning by doing” better than the limited autonomous cars. It could be another decade before we figure out whether self-driving cars really work. By that time, e-bikes and scooters will be a familiar part of urban life.

 The future of transportation is already here — but even by the standards of new technology, it is very unevenly distributed.Self-driving cars, a long-promised revolution, are still only available to a few hundred people in a handful of select sites around the world. Meanwhile, electric bikes and scooters are quickly becoming ubiquitous in dozens of cities.It may seem churlish to set e-scooters, which resemble a child’s toy, alongside self-driving cars. But they are both trying to solve many of the same problems: providing alternatives to traditional cars in order to reduce congestion and emissions. They are just approaching them in different ways — and only one of them is using the traditional Silicon Valley playbook.It is a decade since Google began work on self-driving cars. Last December, the Google team, now called Waymo, launched the first commercially available autonomous taxi service. It is a real breakthrough but it is limited to the sunny suburban streets of Phoenix, Arizona.Despite continued promises from Tesla’s Elon Musk that autonomy is just around the corner, much of the tech industry has become more pessimistic about the near-term prospects for widely available robo-taxis. Smaller players are struggling to go the distance; one prominent start-up, Drive.ai, sold itself to deeper-pocketed Apple last month.
By contrast, in the past two years thousands of electric bikes and e-scooters have appeared on streets across Europe, North America, Asia and Latin America. These “dockless” vehicles can be rented using an app, which is more convenient than the many public bike systems with docking stations.There are valid questions over e-scooters’ safety, regulation and vehicle durability. It remains to be seen whether pioneering “micromobility” start-ups such as Bird and Lime, which own and operate the dockless rentals, can ever turn a profit.Nonetheless, after a winter of discontent, when conditions saw many e-scooters taken off the road, the advent of spring in the northern hemisphere has seen momentum return. According to Second Measure, which analyses purchasing data, sales growth for Bird is already back above where it peaked late last year. Germany has legalised e-scooters and, while these remain illegal in the UK, e-bikes from Uber’s Jump, Lime and others are already proliferating around London.Riding bikes and scooters with an electric boost feels like gaining a superpower. One friend was left giggling with happiness after her first Jump ride, saying it gave her the same sense of new-found speed and freedom that she felt learning to ride a bike as a kid.Legal questions still loom, especially with reports of injuries — and even deaths — on e-scooters. Too few riders wear helmets. Paris, which has taken the most laissez-faire approach to allowing scooters on its streets, is now trying to rein in trottinettes after more than a dozen companies launched there, clogging pavements.Not long ago, the prospect of a sudden acceleration of autonomous cars had people worried. There were fears robo-taxis would hit the streets faster than regulators were able to handle. The problem is now reversed: lawmakers lack the real-world usage data they need to draw up the new rules of the road; companies are not getting the feedback they need to redesign cars for the autonomous age.In the meantime, thousands of e-bikes and scooters are already out there and the vehicles are evolving quickly. Many rental operators send data back to city authorities about where and how their fleets are being used. That is prompting subtle changes to urban infrastructure. Even in the City of London, one of the capital’s more conservative areas, new parking spaces marked for “dockless” are being painted on pavements to nudge riders to leave their bikes in safe and convenient places.This approach fits the classic Silicon Valley ethos of “learning by doing” far better than the limited areas in which autonomous cars are being tested. It could be another decade before we figure out whether self-driving cars really work in bad weather or dense, complex cities like London and New York. By that time, e-bikes and scooters will be a familiar part of urban life. Who knows? Maybe the scooters will start driving themselves before the cars do.Tim Bradshaw is the FT’s global technology correspondentFollow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first.
   
   
       
       
                       
                       
                       
       
   
   
       

           
                   
                           

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