Seeing a big future for micromobility

“The whole premise of micromobility is saying, ‘Hey, a motor the size of your fist should be enough to carry a person,’ “ says Horace Dediu. (Image: Anthony Quintano / Flickr)

A Sidewalk Talk Q&A with Horace Dediu of Micromobility Industries on resizing city transportation.

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It was the summer of 2017, and Horace Dediu was busy researching e-bikes when, suddenly, the scooter phenomenon erupted. He knew something big was happening, but — at the time — he didn’t have a word for it. So Dediu thought back to his old days studying computers and remembered the term “micro-computers.” Soon after, he set up a conference, the world’s first, on “micro-mobility.”

The name stuck.

Today, Dediu is the co-founder of Micromobility Industries, which produces conferences, podcasts, and newsletters on — you guessed it — micromobility. (Horace has an upcoming book on the subject too.) The term can refer to all sorts of small vehicles, such as e-bikes, bike-shares, scooters, and other low-speed forms of urban transportation.

Sidewalk Talk spoke to Dediu to learn more about the history of mobility technologies and cities, why he thinks autonomous vehicles won’t be around any time soon, and why he thinks small new vehicles are in cities to stay.

You’ve spent much of your career studying technology and the way that technologies have disrupted certain industries. Could you explain the art — or science — of disruption?

It’s sort of like humility as a business model. It’s not about something being better, more powerful, or super clever. Many of the stories we’ve had in technology in the last 20 years are low-end disruptions that let you do things cheaper, more conveniently, faster, and so on. These types of approaches to innovation are about creating new things rather than trying to create better things, as it were. Better things are not bad, but in general they don’t create new markets.

You see this in transportation. All the disruptions in automotive have come from worse cars. The Volkswagen Beetle was a worse car. Before that, the Ford Model T was the worst car you could have bought at the time.

In 2015, I spent about three years [looking for the disruptors in] transportation. Frankly, it was really frustrating. There were autonomous technologies, sharing technologies, electric technologies. These were all put forward as “disruptions,” but they were all trying to make a better car. I was looking for something making a worse car.

You wouldn’t classify autonomous vehicles as a disruptive force, because they require so much capital?

They could be disruptive if they allowed us not to have cars, certainly that is one of the theses out there. But when I looked at the timeframe it would take to do that …

I analyzed 140 technologies in terms of their time to diffuse into the market, their S-curves.

S-curve?

Yes, when you have a new idea, it could be an electric motor, it could be a refrigerator, no matter what it is, you’re going to see it adopted in this S-curve fashion so that it starts slowly, goes faster, then it slows down again. The point is that it doesn’t go linearly, it tends to be this gradual process. At the end, everybody has this new thing, but 10 years ago, let’s say, nobody had it.

By the time you get one of these things you ask yourself, “Why did I wait?” And people who wait are called laggards, people who get it early are called early adopters. In the middle you have the early majority and the late majority.

So, I looked at the historical data on S-curves for adoptions. These matter very much. If you get your timing wrong you can miss the window.

There are some who suggest that you will see a supernova explosion of business model innovation in automotive when three forces converge — autonomy, electric, and sharing. Indeed, if that were to happen it would really be a different world. But that would mean that all three of those S-curves would have to happen at the same time.

If you study this, you’ll realize they are all on different trajectories. Therefore this supernova will only happen when the last one joins the other two. So what is the slowest of the three? When I am looking at research, autonomy — at least level five autonomy — is still 20 years away, and that S-curve might take 40 years. That’s 60 years for this to happen.

This is what lead me to micromobility. After three years of doing this research I stumbled upon an e-bike. A friend of mine showed me one and I took it for a ride. It took me 20 minutes to figure that out that this was the right object to be studying.

This must have been a pretty impressive ride.

It was. I was in the phone business for many years, and when I looked at it I said, “This is a smartphone on wheels.” Because you can see how fast it can be updated, how quickly the product can be iterated.

This is key because, with cars, things are measured in very, very long time frames. We still have cassette players in cars. On the other hand, an electric bicycle can be completely redesigned, put into production, and live on a cadence roughly equivalent to the phone business. That means that companies that are designing hardware for these things can keep up with the software. That means that they can iterate much faster than the car. Whatever technology you can dream of, whether it’s sensing technology, vision technology, power technologies, these can happen so quickly in small vehicles.

What else is it about micromobility vehicles that makes them disruptive?

It’s the notion of minimum mobility. What is the size of a vehicle that delivers the utility the customer needs with as small and minimal impact as possible? Well, what is the customer need? The customer need is to travel a certain distance.

My proposal is to segment the market by trip distance. We have very short trips — let’s say, half a mile, or even a few hundred yards. Then you have all the way up to thousands of miles.

When you look at the spectrum of distances that people want to go, they’re all served by the same vehicle. The car is a package, a bundle of trips. You prepay for all the trips your car can give you. It’s like getting a pick-up truck and using it once a year to take the Christmas tree home. That means that one trip a year is costing you $10,000 — and you’re carrying all that capacity the rest of the year, throwing away so much energy and CO2 in order to have that optionality.

But you don’t need to have a big vehicle to deliver short miles. In other words, the un-bundling of the car will happen with small vehicles for small distances and big vehicles for big distances.

And the most common trips are short trips, overwhelmingly so. In the U.S. half of all trips are below 12 miles. Within the lower half, the most common trips are about less than five miles. So we’re actually using a very powerful vehicle designed for long distances mostly for short trips.

And yet, the engineering and the investments that are happening are for vehicles that get us even further, even faster. You look at a Tesla and everybody’s asking, “Please give me more range, even though I’m unlikely to ever drain the battery on a single day unless I cross the country.” Statistically, it’s one in 800 trips that you’re going to take that distance.

The whole premise of micromobility is saying, “Hey, a motor the size of your fist should be enough to carry a person. A vehicle that weighs a fraction of your personal weight should be enough to move you around for most of the trips you need to make.”

I started my research with bicycles. I said, “If we electrify them, they’re more approachable. They can give us a little bit more range. It’s a lot easier for a lot of people.” But while I was thinking about that, the scooter revolution happened. I would have thought that a motorcycle would have been more the American style of micromobility vehicle, but we ended up with scooters. The U.S. turned out to be very different than anyone’s expectations. And even more perverse, it took off in Los Angeles, the most car-oriented city in the most car-oriented country in the world. It was a real head scratcher. I myself was “disrupted” — my thinking was around bicycles, and here was someone saying, “No, we have an even smaller, lower-end solution.”

The interesting thing though is that in these markets of Los Angeles, or in particular Santa Monica, they’re being used for trips that wouldn’t have ever been taken by a car. They’re more for trips that people would have walked, but didn’t. In other words, the trips that people are taking on scooters are trips that would have never been taken before. Just like on your phone, the things you do with it now are things you never would have done had you not had a phone. Here is another tenet of this industry, or disruption theory: a real disruptor makes its own demand. Really breakthrough stuff creates demand where it didn’t exist.

But there seems to be a fundamental difference between a phone and a scooter. Yes, you can get the phone to be better and better in each iteration. You can do the same for a bike or a scooter, but the scooter requires an infrastructure around it to really be adopted widely.

You’re exactly right. Again, I’m going to, as a creature of habit, go back to the phone metaphor. The phone would have been useless if there wasn’t a cellular network, which is an infrastructure. It was really expensive. Early on when I was saying, “Everybody is going to have a smartphone,” people said there is no way that there will ever be sufficient bandwidth for a billion people to use smartphones. Here we are with three plus billion people using smartphones on 3G plus networks. How did that happen?

Let’s talk even before that. I have studied the 19th century, which was the history of railroads — how did they come about? Somebody invents a steam engine, but everybody said, “Well, what use is this thing? There’s no railroads in the world. There’s no tracks. How are you even going to buy the property rights? How are you going to get the right of way to lay these things down?” Sure enough it happened.

We have to ask not only what is the device adoption rate, but what is the supporting infrastructure adoption rate? The two systems are codependent; they’re in a feedback loop.

So I’m confident only because of this history, only because we’ve seen this happen over and over again. It starts with a device. We didn’t build airports and then have airplanes show up. In fact, there were decades of airplanes before an airport was able to be set up. It’s a bit of a mystery how it happens, again, because it’s a feedback loop, it’s non-linear. It’s also depending on millions of people acting. And decision makers listening to millions of people acting.

But I’m confident, given the history, that we’ll see things like more safe roadways for micromobility vehicles. There’ll be a quadricycle lane, a bicycle lane, and then perhaps even a small vehicle lane. These will be lanes far smaller than what we have today, but you will have to segregate traffic by speed, as is natural.

How do you get cities to adopt micromobility?

You need to increase the cost of traveling into a city by car. You do so with congestion pricing, with the removal of parking, with fuel pricing, and so on. These are sticks. But without a carrot it will end up being felt as oppression, because lots of people are dependent on the car to get in the city.

The carrot is to provide an alternative that’s positive. So for every cent increase in the fuel tax you might say, “Okay, we’re going to spend that money on more infrastructure for micro vehicles, or more transit infrastructure.”

You could say, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to build a parking lot on the edge of the city and then we’re going to add buses and we’re going to add trains so that will get you to your final destination. And then we might even give you a subscription model so that you prepay for the parking, you prepay for the trip, then you also get a scooter and/or bike at the end of your journey so you go door-to-door making it seamless.”

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May 3, 2019