Personal Electric Mobility

Remember the original Segway? When the company initially unveiled it in 2001 for $5,000, it was supposed to be the future of transportation, a self-balancing electric vehicle with a land speed somewhere between walking and biking with no rider effort needed outside of steering the machine. But beyond gimmick tours1 and showing up in acclaimed comedy series, the OG Segway never quite managed to revolutionize the personal transportation industry—it was too expensive and bulky for mass market adoption. Back in 2020, the company retired the model just short of its 20th anniversary.

Segway the company still kinda exists. After struggling for years to make something of the Segway product line, they were eventually acquired by Ninebot, another maker of electric scooters with more conventional form factors. The combined company, Segway-Ninebot, has continued to build out EV product lines: scooters2, go-karts, uni-wheel vehicles, and even reimagined self-balancing boards. They cannot claim the same level of impact as Tesla in kickstarting the revolution to electric cars, but their persistence and iterative improvements in the underlying tech—batteries, manufacturing & logistics, balancing mechanisms—have steadily advanced the field of personal mobility.

While stand-up scooters have not taken over the streets3, attaching batteries to wheeled transports will be the next evolution of vehicles. This year’s CES is illustrative of the coming wave; there are plenty of machines incorporating an electric motor in place of an internal combustion one, or in addition to human-fueled kinetic energy. In the case of the former, the challenge for larger vehicles like boats and planes is overcoming the energy density and efficiency of fossil fuels, to enable their electric counterparts comparable travel distance on a single charge. For the latter, smaller vehicles the likes of e-bikes and scooters and mopeds feature comparatively lighter weights and shorter trips, and so fit better with where current EV-ification technology makes the most sense.

Assuming that adoption does continue to increase4, it’s certainly a positive development in reducing carbon emissions and furthering the evolution of transportation. Compared to the electrification of cars, questions around charging infrastructure and the added weight’s potential to damage the pavement are relatively minor issues, particularly if personal EVs can ride the coattails of infrastructural development brought on by automobiles.

But there is one real negative externality, in the sheer added power of electric motors. Their instantaneous torque accelerates vehicles—especially light ones carrying 1 or 2 passengers—to 30mph+ much faster than combustion engines or manual movements, without the physical protection afforded by automobiles nor the licensing requirements. Right now, policies have not caught up with the reality of fast personal EVs; we make do with a stern warning in the instruction manual about the dangers of going too fast. Our city streets and sidewalks were built for cars and pedestrians; they are not configured to deal with mini-EVs traveling fast on the same paths, perhaps weaving in and out of those vehicles and people.

That said, other countries have figured this out. Copenhagen and Amsterdam are cities that have reconfigured themselves to optimize biking, while many Asian cities blend cars with scooters and mopeds on the same streets5. The sweet spot of personal mobility vehicles is medium-distance travel, somewhere between walking and driving; the vehicles are making their way to the mass market, and perhaps with enough supply of riders we can demand our living areas evolve to realize EVs’ full potential.

  1. I distinctly recall participating in an Angel Island team-building trip.

  2. I was initially inspired to look more at personal EVs after buying a pair of scooters for the kids; they’re quite fun to ride.

  3. Yes, Bird and Lime and their ilk tried several years ago, and have largely failed.

  4. Europe has seen its share of e-bikes growing at an accelerated clip. We had a chance in the US to boost e-bike sales with legislation, but the Inflation Reduction Act ultimately stripped out the provision.

  5. Of course, getting around in those cities is often described as chaotic, and traffic accidents occur at a different rate.

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