White was “really low” for a couple of weeks, he said, and he considered leaving the transportation field altogether. In 2019, he and his wife, Zoe Ryder White, a poet, and their three children had moved to a six-acre farm in Ulster County. He had lots of projects in mind. But, as lockdowns eased and scooter-sharing returned to cities in the summer and fall of 2020, he began lobbying to join Superpedestrian.
“I wanted to work for the good guys,” he said. “I just have so much invested in this personally. I feel like if we don’t win New York, I’m going to be filling potholes for the Ulster County Department of Transportation.”
Electric scooters don’t look like the coming revolution in transportation, but to Horace Dediu, a business analyst and micromobility’s leading evangelist—he coined the term—that is part of their appeal. “The next revolution in transportation will come from the bottom,” Dediu has said. Dediu was born in Romania and came to the U.S. as a child; he attended Tufts and the Harvard Business School. He now lives in Finland, where he is multimodal. On YouTube, he philosophizes about urban mobility while riding his bicycle.
Dediu argues that, just as the heavy desktop computer has been superseded by lighter laptops, tablets, and smartphones, so the automobile will be “unbundled” into much lighter, cleaner, and less resource-dependent E.V.s that can be used for most of the trips people now make by car. (In the U.S., sixty per cent of all car trips are less than six miles.) Lithium-ion batteries, first introduced to consumers by Sony in high-end camcorders, today power an ever-expanding array of mobile devices—not just our phones and laptops but also vehicles like e-bikes, e-scooters, e-monowheels, e-skateboards, and other continually evolving forms of micromobility that no longer require the user’s energy to move them.
Dediu calls e-scooters “smartphones on wheels.” No other vehicle on the road has a higher proportion of brains to brawn. Scooter riders, however, are less reliably intelligent. In the Wild West days, reckless driving and cheaply made scooters reduced the life span of some scooters on the streets to just over twenty-eight days. When Bird and Lime launched, they deployed consumer scooters bought from the Chinese manufacturers Segway-Ninebot and Xiaomi, which weren’t made for the hard-knock street life of a public-transit vehicle. In San Francisco, brakes failed as some users were scootering down steep hills, leading to class-action lawsuits. In Auckland, New Zealand, a software glitch caused scooters to brake suddenly. In October, 2018, Lime recalled two thousand of its scooters from fleets in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Lake Tahoe over fears that the batteries, which are installed under the standing platform, might explode. Lithium-ion-battery fires can occur on rare occasions when a short circuit causes the battery to release a large amount of its stored-up energy at once; that’s why airlines won’t allow lithium-ion batteries in checked baggage. There was a fire at Citi Bike’s main charging hub in Brooklyn, in May, 2019.
Still, Dediu believes that today’s scooters could evolve into tomorrow’s automobiles. The technologies embedded in a state-of-the-art e-scooter and e-bike—mobile communications, autonomous driving capability, and artificial intelligence—will be central to the cars that Apple or another tech company might make in the future. If cities are going to meet the zero-emission goals they’ve set and if automakers like Ford and G.M. are going to electrify their fleets by 2030 and 2035, respectively, as they have pledged, automobiles will have to become smaller, lighter, and more efficient, particularly given the limits of lithium-ion-battery technology. Four-wheeled, covered quadracycles, electric rickshaw-taxis, and electric minibuses resembling three-wheeled tuk-tuks are all possibilities.
But the disposability of shared scooters also raises the question of just how green this new mode of transport really is. There is still no commercially reliable way to recycle lithium-ion batteries—a huge caveat for the sustainability of E.V.s in general. All the superannuated scooters eventually end up in landfills, as did shared bikes, which were widely embraced in China early in the past decade, then abruptly cancelled in many places, leading to shocking photographs of enormous bike-burial sites. Added to the environmental costs of discarded batteries and scooters are the emissions produced by the trucks and vans that bring the scooters to charging stations—or, in some cases, to gig workers’ homes. On important issues, such as labor practices and sustainability, the Wild West of micromobility remains unsettled, even as the go-go early days of disruption have given way to the courtship of regulators like New York’s D.O.T.
To get a better sense of scooters as proto-vehicles of the future, I visited Superpedestrian, the home of Link. The company currently has a hundred and ninety employees, many of whom work at its R. & D. lab, in a former machine shop on a quiet back street in Cambridge. Assaf Biderman, the company’s Israeli-born forty-three-year-old founder, joined me on Zoom for a tour, beaming in from an island in Greece where he, his wife, the Israeli singer-songwriter Nili Ohayon, known as Onili, and their six-year-old daughter, Livia, were spending the pandemic. When they return to the U.S., the family plans to settle in Brooklyn.
After completing his military service in Israel, Biderman majored in physics and architecture at M.I.T. At the university’s Media Lab, he worked under Hiroshi Ishii, whose research into human-computer interfaces was pioneering in the early nineties. Collaborating with Ishii, Biderman told me, “brought me into the idea of using new sensors and digital tools to create a meaningful connection between humans and machines.” Biderman was also inspired by Bill Mitchell, the Australian-born dean of architecture at M.I.T., who foresaw the profound effects that data would have on architecture and city planning. As Biderman put it, “When the urban environment starts to emit data, you can begin to plan it with quantitative tools.”
In 2003, Biderman and Carlo Ratti, a former postdoc in Ishii’s lab who is now a professor at M.I.T., founded the Senseable City Lab, within M.I.T.’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, to explore how introducing digital technologies into the built environment can aid in the study, design, and management of cities. As the lab started consulting with cities around the world, Biderman told me, he kept hearing that demand for urban mobility is expected to triple by mid-century. “Growth in global population, growth in urbanization, and rising incomes are all driving it,” he said. “But the streets we have are what we’ve got. How can you use those streets to move more people more efficiently?”
Superpedestrian was launched in January, 2013. Biderman assembled a team of forty robotics engineers, who spent the next four and a half years coding a machine-learning-based operating system that could be used in any small electric vehicle, including a car, and for which they eventually received thirty-seven patents. “A self-sensing control system” is how Biderman describes it.
In 2017, the company brought out the Copenhagen Wheel. By replacing the back wheel of a conventional bike with the Wheel, you could convert it into an e-bike. In addition to its vehicle intelligence, the Wheel could sense and learn from the city’s infrastructure. It recorded carbon-monoxide levels, reported on traffic congestion, and used algorithms to detect potholes. The Wheel also had the machine-learning capacity to adapt to a rider’s unique pedalling style and pace.
Priced at seventeen hundred and fifty dollars, the Wheel went on sale in 2017. The only thing it couldn’t do was sell. “It offered too much for its price,” Biderman told me. “We should have charged four or five thousand for it. Then people would have understood they’re getting the best.”
In 2018, Biderman entered the scooter-share market. He asked his engineers to design a high-tech scooter, and they loaded it with all the intelligence and self-diagnostic capacity that the Copenhagen Wheel had, as well as many new features. During my visit to the lab, Graham Gullans showed me Link’s Seattle fleet on a monitor. The individual scooters, represented as green dots, were zipping around the city in real time. Choosing a random dot and clicking on it, Gullans explained how Superpedestrian’s operating system was performing more than a thousand autonomous maintenance checks a second—brake issues, battery-cell-temperature imbalances, severed internal wires, water penetration—so that an algorithm that has learned to detect signs of incipient scooter failure can take the vehicle out of service before a serious malfunction occurs that might land the machine in the shop and the rider in the hospital. (The system can also detect collisions and report unsafe driving to local control centers.) As a result of this regimen of automated self-care, Link scooters require maintenance once in every two hundred and fifty trips, versus the industry standard of once in every fifteen to forty trips.
“The scooters even open their own service tickets!” Biderman exclaimed. “With the instructions on what needs to be fixed for the mechanics. And, once it is fixed, the scooter tests itself to see if the work was done correctly.”
Last November, I bought an electric scooter for my wife, as a birthday gift. It was a portable model, with a steering column that folds. You can get one for five hundred dollars, and a fair number of people who rent scooters and enjoy getting around on them eventually do buy their own. That poses problems for the long-term viability of scooter-sharing. “The best customers end up leaving the market,” David Zipper, an urban-mobility and technology-policy expert and a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, told me.
As a gift, the scooter was a disaster. My wife rode it maybe fifty yards down the unprotected bike lane on our street in Brooklyn, went over a speed hump, and that was that. Like the women in the Irish cycling study, she didn’t feel safe. Horace Dediu, the micromobility seer, told me that he considers women to be an “indicator species” when it comes to new forms of transportation. “In Europe, whenever women begin to use a mode it becomes mainstream very quickly,” he said. Cycling has long skewed male, but in Denmark more women cycle than men, a fact that Dediu attributes to the country’s investment in infrastructure.
After taking a few spins on our street, I felt safe enough. (“Lord, grant me the confidence of a mediocre white man,” the writer Sarah Hagi memorably tweeted in 2016.) So I set off for a test commute into Manhattan, following my usual bike route.
In a 2018 study of Austin scooter injuries conducted by the Austin Public Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control, a third of the accidents occurred on the first ride, so I went cautiously, wearing a helmet, but I soon got the knack. Cruising down Carlton Avenue, I caught the giddy appeal of e-scootering. “It’s like supercharging yourself for a few minutes,” as Assaf Biderman put it to me. You stand there, and with virtually no effort at all—only the slightest pressure of your index finger on the trigger-shaped throttle button—you’re skimming along through the air. But the standing position also accounts for the P.B.E. (Paul Blart Effect): you look like a blissed-out dork. Elon Musk told the journalist Kara Swisher that scooters “lack dignity.”