E-scooters are still viable despite bad rap

Outright ban is not a cure, proper legislation will help ensure safety standards are met

Source: Neuron.

Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs) have become a buzzword in Singapore over the past few months with reports of incidents appearing on the internet almost every other day.

More than 2,500 active mobility-related offenses were recorded between May and December in 2018 following the introduction of the Active Mobility Act (AMA), which regulates the use of PMDs in Singapore.

The two key factors causing the high rate of incidents and offenses are unsafe batteries as well as speeding, resulting in a blanket perception that e-scooters are an unhealthy addition to a city’s mobility system.

Unsafe batteries resulting in fire incidents

In 2017, there were 49 cases of PMD-related fires according to statistics released by the Singapore Civil Defence Force and the number increased to 74 in 2019. In the first half of 2019 alone, there were 49 reported incidents.

Singapore’s Land Transport Authority (LTA) has taken the step to regulate the use of PMDs. It is now mandatory for a user to register his or her vehicle before it can be used on the roads in Singapore. A registered PMD will have a LTA Registration Mark and an Identification Mark bearing a unique registration number. But to earn these marks require the e-scooter to follow stringent regulations. Since July 1, it is an offense to ride a non-registered e-scooter on public path.

Amid the recent spate of PMD-related fire incidents, the LTA has mandated that any motorized PMD, in order to be used on public paths, must meet the fire safety standards by 2021. They must be certified to the UL2272 standard, which was first published by US-based company Underwriters Laboratories for hoverboards in the United States in 2016. Singapore recently adopted it as part of the move to regulate the use of PMDs in the country.

Non-UL2272 certified PMDs can only be used until December 31st next year. The LTA has even taken the extra step to provide SGD 100 (US 73.35) as an incentive to owners who dispose of their non-compliant PMD. In an interview with KrASIA, Zachary Wang, founder of e-scooter operator Neuron Mobility commended this move, calling it a “good gesture” since the government is paying out of its pocket to ensure people ride only safe e-scooters.

In fact, as an e-scooter sharing operator, Neuron Mobility has its own fleet of patented commercial grade e-scooters that were designed in-house. Wang told KrASIA the company decided to design their own scooters after realizing that most PMDs in the market are designed for consumers and not for the two other stakeholders of the industry—government and operators. To ensure a sustainable business, Neuron Mobility had to go in-house and build its own scooters that would not only meet the safety standards, but also maximize operator experience.

Errant riders causing injuries to pedestrians

Unsafe batteries is not the only issue here in Singapore. Cases of PMDs injuring pedestrians are also very common.

In Singapore, according to the AMA, an e-scooter can only go at 10km/hour on foot paths and 25km/hour on shared paths. However, many riders have been caught riding at a speed that exceeds the limit, causing injury and even death. Just last month, a 65-year old woman passed away from injuries after being hit by an e-scooter that was allegedly going at thrice the speed limit.

While the blame lies with irresponsible riders, the ability of an e-scooter to travel at a fast speed plays a significant role too. With one kilowatt of energy, an electric car can travel up to 6.6 km. However, an electric scooter can travel up to 133.3 km using the same amount of energy. Because a PMD can go at such fast speeds, riders often do not have enough time to react to unforeseen circumstances, which causes accidents.

Outright ban unnecessary

Due to such incidents, there have been calls to ban e-scooters in Singapore. In fact, since September, PMDs have been banned from void decks and all common properties at Housing Board estates in 15 towns.

However, regarding calls to execute a nation-wide ban, International Transport Forum (ITF) secretary-general Kim Young Tae told The Straits Times he believes an outright ban is not needed as these vehicles have various advantages although more regulations and infrastructures are needed to make them a safe mode of transport. He added that it could take up to three years before countries can introduce optimal policies to address safety issues.

Controversies aside, there is a market for e-scooters in Singapore. The transportation system in Singapore is very well-developed. As of September 2019, the Mass Rapid Transport (MRT) network encompasses 199.6km of routes and has 119 stations currently in operation, covering almost the entire city.

The MRT is the trunk of Singapore’s transport system and while the government is consistently building new stations and lines, it is impractical to have a station every 100m, which is why there will always be a need for solutions to the last-mile mobility gap especially in such a connected city, Neuron Mobility’s Wang said.

“[E-scooters] hold the potential to positively impact cities around the world. [They] can reduce the number of vehicles on the road, reduce emissions, and based on Lux Research’s analysis, remain one of the cheapest and fastest modes of mobility,” Chris Robinson, senior analyst at Lux, a data and insights firm told KrASIA. Robinson leads the Future of Mobility program which analyzes future trends within the mobility sector.

“The rapid growth and ridership indicate the [e-scooter] market does have potential, but cities must play a more active role in crafting legislation to ensure rider safety. Types of measures they can take include creating special lanes for their use on roads, requiring riders to wear safety protection like helmets, or enacting restrictions on nighttime riding,” Robinson added.

The issue at hand is not whether e-scooters should be banned, but rather how authorities can regulate the use of e-scooters to ensure they can bring about positive impact to the city. Apart from the need for e-scooters to meet safety standards and limiting speed on pathways, and the proposals for an outright ban, there have been calls for various forms of legislation, such as imposing a minimum age on PMD riders.

Natural phase of development

Currently, there is a lack of a clear direction for this market. However, one thing that is clear among the stakeholders is that e-scooters are a viable means of transport and like any forms of mobility that have emerged before them, the current disarray is but a natural phase of development which will pass.

“It is an inevitable progression of the industry,” Wang said.

“If you look at cars for instance, they are not designed for 5 to 10 million people in a city. Cities start to get denser when cities run out of horizontal space and they start to build vertically. With that high level of density, space becomes a scarce resource. You don’t have sufficient parking space for cars and driving experience becomes horrible because you’re always caught in a jam.”

“So it [a city] needs to have an alternative, and that is why this kind of mobility service is inevitable. But it needs a bit of time. The cities need to jump through a few hoops here and there to eventually get there,” he added.

This sentiment is also shared by Robinson, who said: “There is progress requiring the registration of PMDs with the Land Transport Authority to ensure all e-scooters on the road are officially accounted for and also promoting citizens to be proactive in reporting riders not properly operating their e-scooters. However, it will still take time for them to seamlessly integrate into the largest mobility infrastructure that Singapore offers with its public transportation and ride sharing.”

Moreover, the LTA has mandated that any motorized PMD, in order to be used on public paths, must meet the fire safety standards by 2021.

State for e-scooter sharing operators

Earlier this year, the LTA opened up applications for e-scooters to apply for licenses to operate in Singapore. Operators will need to comply with the safety standards as well as provide insurance to cover any third-party liability for death or injuries arising from the use of their motorized PMDs. In total, 14 operators submitted their applications. The results were scheduled to be released in the second quarter of 2019 but were delayed twice.

The LTA said it will be consulting device-sharing and rental companies for additional regulations to improve public safety. The AMA Panel submitted its latest round of recommendations on the safe use of PMD last week. If the government accepts the recommendations, e-scooter riders in the future will have to pass a mandatory theory test and be at least 16 years old to use the device on public paths.

Despite the challenges involved, operators such as Grab and Neuron Mobility are hopeful, maintaining that the future of mobility is multi-modal and shared.

KrASIA reached out to 500 Startups, a venture capital firm that backs Neuron Mobility and Beam for comment, as well as to Beam. At the time of writing, we had yet to hear back from them.