At the end of the last century, the tech world was in a flutter around an unannounced product that appeared to be revolutionary. Dean Kamen, one of the smartest and brightest inventors in the last 50 years, was reportedly working on a new device that was cloaked in secrecy. It had received great the attention in 1999 from VC John Doer, who speculated that it would be bigger than the Internet, and Steve Jobs, who originally said it would be bigger than the PC, although he retracted that statement after the Segway came out and was critical of it once it shipped.
The invention turned out to be the Segway HT, which stood for Human Transport and finally hit the market in 2001. Besides being very expensive with starting prices around $3,000, Segway’s quickly became a nuisance on public streets and soon were thrust into various types of rules and regulations. The Segway, with its self-balancing technology, made them easy to use and relatively safe to drive. Their size and the space they took up on sidewalks soon relegated them to more vertical uses such as for tours and by security officers who needed to get around things like malls and airports quickly.
Regardless of the fate of the Segway, the original vision of a highly mobile transport vehicle that can get a person from point A to point B that are too long to walk but too short to hail a cab or call an Uber or Lyft driver has merit.
The modern mobile human transport solution today is the scooters that are populating big cities recently and seem to be trying to fulfill the original dream of the Segway. This is especially important in big cities as they have the potential of reducing traffic and, from an environmental standpoint, since they are electric, be better for the environment.
I see these scooters as being of interest to millennials and Gen Z or younger users who grew up on skateboards and are just transitioning to powered representations of that experience to get them around a city faster and with less physical output. Indeed, while in San Francisco recently I saw many younger folks, some dressed in suits, hopping on rented scooters to get around the city and transport them to meetings all over town.
I myself have been tempted to rent one for similar use but at my age and being balanced challenged, I am probably not their target customer. Bird and LimeBike and Spin are the three big players in scooters and have gotten the attention of Uber and Lyft. These three scooter companies have a business model that is somewhat similar to their own, and Uber and Lyft have submitted permit requests in San Francisco to deliver their scooters to the City by the Bay.
However, for Bird, LimeBike, and Spin to reach their potential, they are going to have to submit to new types of rules and regulations. They must also overcome some of the anger they have created in cities like San Francisco where Bird and LimeBike have dumped hundreds of scooters on sidewalks around town and clogged up streets and walkways. San Francisco has temporarily banned them, making Bird and LimeBike submit requests for special permits which would give the City of San Francisco more control of what Bird and LimeBike can do with these scooters.
In Ben Thompson’s Stratchery newsletter that I highly suggest you subscribe to, he sees scooters as an interesting extension of “everything as a service.”
Here is his view of the role Scooters will play in the gig economy:
“It’s worth considering, though, just how much sense dockless scooters make: the concept is one of the purest manifestations of what I referred to in 2016 as Everything as a Service:
What happens, though, if we apply the services business model to hardware? Consider an airplane: I fly thousands of miles a year, but while Stratechery is doing well, I certainly don’t own my own plane! Rather, I fly on an airplane that is owned by an airline that is paid for in part through some percentage of my ticket cost. I am, effectively, “renting” a seat on that airplane, and once that flight is gone I own nothing other than new GPS coordinates on my phone.
Now the process of buying an airplane ticket, identifying who I am, etc. is far more cumbersome than simply hopping in my car – there are significant transaction costs – but given that I can’t afford an airplane it’s worth putting up with when I have to travel long distances. What happens, though, when those transaction costs are removed? Well, then you get Uber or its competitors: simply touch a button and a car that would have otherwise been unused will pick you up and take you where you want to go, for a price that is a tiny fraction of what the car cost to buy in the first place. The same model applies to hotels – instead of buying a house in every city you visit, simply rent a room – and Airbnb has taken the concept to a new level by leveraging unused space.
The enabling factor for both Uber and Airbnb applying a services business model to physical goods is your smartphone and the Internet: it enables distribution and transactions costs to be zero, making it infinitely more convenient to simply rent the physical goods you need instead of acquiring them outright.
What is striking about dockless scooters – at least when one is parked outside your door! – is that they make ride-sharing services feel like half-measures: why even wait five minutes, when you can just scan-and-go? Steve Jobs described computers as bicycles of the mind; now that computers are smartphones and connected to the Internet they can conjure up the physical equivalent as well!”
Ben Thompson’s perspective is important in that it places scooters in the proper context of the Gig economy and how it could impact mobile transportation for short distances in very meaningful ways. The more I look at the role scooters could play, especially in large cities where parking is sparse and using a taxi or Uber or Lyft to go short distances does not make sense, the more I see Dean Kamen’s Segway vision being played out. And while Mr. Kamen may not reap the big rewards from that original vision, Segway is providing key technology for use on some of these scooters, so he still has a hand in delivering on his original vision
For further reading on this subject, check out these two articles.
The New York Times did a great piece on the role scooters could play in reducing traffic congestion and enhancing short distance travel. I encourage you to read this piece as the author, Kevin Rose, started out with the idea that he hated them, and after using scooters for a week, ended up being a fan.
Techcrunch covered the regulatory issues and how some cities may deal with the challenge of accommodating scooter services.