MIT spins off a better ride share scooter

The current crop of ride share scooters are underwhelming. Can tech save the concept?
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

A transportation robotics company spun out of MIT is gearing up to rollout a better ride share scooter. Superpedestrian is now in mass production, armed with $20 million in new financing to support its play for scooter share dominance. 

If you live in one of the major cities now strewn with ride share scooters from the likes of Bird and Lime, you'll probably be familiar with a major issue: The hardware, well, sucks. Find any pack of three or more friends scootering to a bar and there's a good chance one of them will be trailing behind on the slow scooter, or else yelping semi-terrified that the brakes don't seem to work. 

Safety and reliability are major concerns for riders and municipalities, which are still struggling to regulate the influx of scooters choking sidewalks and bike lanes. Currently, fleet operators must frequently repair, charge, and replace vehicles – the costs of which are massive. 

According to Superpedestrian, the scooter sharing industry has primarily focused on mechanical and connectivity improvements, which, although important, have provided insufficient gains. With cities now tightening their safety requirements and operators seeking to show a path to profitability, the need for dramatic improvements in vehicle and fleet technology is even more pressing.

"Scooter operators today don't engineer the key electronic systems in their vehicles; instead they source off-the-shelf hardware, giving them almost no control over vehicle functionality. This prevents them from detecting and addressing issues of vehicle safety and reliability at the core," said Emily Castor Warren, Superpedestrian advisor and former Lyft and Lime policy executive. "With safety as a paramount concern in the minds of riders and city leaders, operators must rise to the challenge by deploying safer, self-sustaining vehicles. Superpedestrian is the only company today that engineers all vehicle control systems from the ground up, creating a scooter that can protect riders if something goes wrong and deliver the product quality city leaders expect," Warren added.

Superpedestrian hopes to help solve the problems with a system of embedded computers and proprietary software that controls batteries, motor, data encryption, communication, as well as decision-making. With this platform, the new scooters instantly detect hundreds of events that can cause malfunction, triage each issue without intervention, and determine the appropriate response to prevent the issue from causing damage to the vehicle or rider. 

Some of the common issues that plague the scooter sharing industry, horrifyingly, include battery fires, which can result from water penetration, cut internal wires, and battery cell temperature imbalances. Superpedestrian's system is designed to detect short circuits throughout the vehicle and electronically disconnect the battery before damage progresses.

Braking issues are also common to ride share scooters. Superpedestrian designed its scooters to brake in 60% shorter distances compared to other scooters. Its vehicles also provide reliable electronic braking by constantly regulating the amount of braking energy put into the battery while dissipating the excess into heat. 

Of course, none of these safety protocols are going to help if cities start to ban scooters. Cities designate certain public areas for low speed, no riding, or no parking, but current scooters show significant lag in enforcing these rules. This results in riders speeding or parking in restricted areas. 

Perhaps the most compelling feature of Superpedestrian's scooters, then, at least for the long term viability of the concept, is that they store all city rules on-board to enforce speed and parking limits. 

"We see great need as the scooter industry evolves and operators seek fleet technologies that provide substantial improvements in safety and reliability," said Assaf Biderman, Founder and CEO of Superpedestrian. "The autonomous capabilities of our scooters enable us to offer a fleet solution that sets a new safety standard. At the same time, our platform allows our operator partners to achieve new levels of operational efficiency and drive toward sustainable growth."

The company's recent $20M round brings total financing to $64 million, which is a good thing considering the main competitors in the space, Bird and Lime, are loss leaders with no clear path to profitability.

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