Over the last several months a handful of startups have dropped hundreds or thousands of electric scooters on the sidewalks in cities like San Francisco, Austin, and San Diego, allowing anyone who downloads an app to unlock and ride them across town for a small fee.
It's a radical — and controversial — experiment in urban mobility. But scooters could be just the beginning.
Lime, a company that runs sharing services for scooters, pedal bikes and e-bikes, is developing a new type of vehicle known internally as a "transit pod." The concept is in early stages and the design is still in flux. But Lime's plan is to build an enclosed, electric vehicle that could hold one or two people, resembling a smart car or a deluxe golf cart. The vehicle wouldn't be a car, exactly; it's not even clear whether it would have three or four wheels. But it would drive in normal street traffic, and could hit a top speed of about 40 miles an hour, said Brad Bao, Lime's co-founder and chairman.
Unlike Lime's scooters, which tend to end up littering the sidewalks and exasperating the non-scooting public, unused pods would be parked in street parking spots. Bao predicts two or three of them would fit into a single spot. Customers would access the pods through a sharing service available in the company's app, seeing them as another transportation option alongside scooters and electric and pedal bicycles.
Cities need pods because traditional cars are overkill for the bulk of urban driving, Bao said. Most trips consist of a single person looking to travel three miles or less. "They don't need to have a five seater or a seven-seater, plus all that gasoline consumption," he said. "But there is no such product out there to meet their needs." he said. "Our goal is to be a leading multimodal company," said Toby Sun, co-founder and CEO.
Lime isn't the first company with a utopian plan for tiny, car-like vehicles that run on electricity. In the early 2000s, Ford made a line of similar vehicles it called TH!NK. It discontinued them, and a company that subsequently attempted to build them as an independent venture failed. Used models still float around Craigslist for a few thousand dollars. Arcimoto, a small, publicly traded company based in Eugene, Oregon, has been working on two-seat, three-wheeled electric vehicles for a decade, and began delivering its first shipments to customers last fall. Electra Meccanica, a Canadian startup that makes three-wheelers that look like regular cars with the back half cut off, said recently it has begun delivering them to the United States.
For the last year, Lime has attempted to differentiate itself from other scooter and bike sharing companies like Bird, Spin, and Jump by offering a wider range of vehicles, and by playing a more active role in the manufacturing process. It has operations in China that oversee the building of scooters and bicycles. Making pods would be a significantly larger design and manufacturing challenge. The company is still in the testing phase and would need to find manufacturing partners. The timeline of the project and the number of pods Lime would try to produce is unclear.
One key design feature could be how many wheels the pods have, because that will impact the regulatory landscape. The federal government has regulated low-speed motor vehicles since 1998, when it passed rules to allow people to drive their golf carts to run errands, so long as the vehicles met certain requirements. The rules relate to four-wheeled vehicles weighing less than 3,000 pounds whose top speed is 20 to 25 miles per hour. At the time, regulators were primarily concerned with retirement communities and other controlled environments — not downtown San Francisco. Three-wheeled vehicles are regulated as motorcycles.
Most states have also passed regulations for low-speed motor vehicles, generally limiting their use to roads with lower speed limits. Some cities also have their own regulations. In Austin, for instance, low-speed vehicles can't go faster than 25 miles per hour, must carry insurance, can't carry more than six people, and have to be clearly marked. The city code also includes a series of standards for low-power electric vehicles that serve as cabs. Some state laws would let cities ban low-speed motor vehicles altogether.
Bao said Lime would also pursue deals for the pods to be parked in on-street parking spots, akin to the car-sharing company Car2Go. This would allow someone to pick up a pod, drive it across town, and leave it at her destination. Programs to offer car-sharing companies city contracts for such arrangements are emerging; San Francisco approved its program last year, citing research that each shared car could result in 7 to 15 privately-owned vehicles being removed from the streets. The city's transportation department said it hadn't received any requests for shared parking from companies utilizing such novel vehicles.
Sven Beiker, managing director of Silicon Valley Mobility, a transportation consultancy, predicts the economics will be tricky. "It seems you're getting into a challenging business with car sharing, and a challenging business with low-volume manufacturing," he said.
As with many forms of alternative transport, a major difficulty is how they'd fit into a landscape dominated by traditional cars. People driving underpowered pods through streets filled with SUVs could feel uneasy. The best chance for pods, said Beiker, would be more aggressive actions to ban full-sized cars from central cities. "We have to say, 'no, don't bring your pickup truck downtown,'" he said.