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.