Another Alternative for Urban Transport: Shared Micro Vehicles

In late October Nissan and partner Scoot Networks announced they have launched a new shared micro-car service in San Francisco. The new scheme uses the tiny Twizy “car,” a tiny electric-powered tandem-seat vehicle by Nissan’s sister company Renault. For this application, the vehicle is being called the Scoot Quad. I have been interested in this idea for years, and now that this future has arrived, I am surprised to find myself wondering how prevalent this service will become with the enormous growth of ride-sourcing services (e.g. Uber/Lyft). Once it was a question of if. Then it was a question of when. And now it is a question of how big.

The beauty of Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) is the ability to right-size (and right-price) our transportation. A user doesn’t need a conventional car, comprised of 25,000 parts or more, to travel a few miles in an urban core. The tiny vehicles from Nissan/Renault offer large economic advantages due to simplicity and size, but I wonder if a user would rather just hail an Uber rather than check-out, drive, then park a car. Perhaps it’s the type of trip that will decide the mode of travel for the consumer in this future. For example, “trip-chaining,” when a user needs to make a number of errands or multiple stops, is probably most conveniently executed in a shared car rather than using a ride-sharing service.

Scoot Networks is a growing new mobility start-up that currently offers 250 shared electric (Vespa-type) scooters in San Francisco, the same city Uber and Lyft launched in. These scooters are available for one-way trips across a large zone and have a 30-mph top speed. The user doesn’t need a motorcycle license, and Scoot provides a helmet. The scooters are available for as low as $2 for each half-hour. While the market for Scoot is growing, we should remember these vehicles make users more vulnerable to personal injury and bad weather. 

The Renault Twizy launched in Europe as a “quadracycle”, a mix of car and scooter with a 49-mph top speed. The roughly $11,000 vehicle is not offered with a full door. The Twizy is an experiment for Renault, about 15,000 have been produced. The vehicle is so small, four can be parked (nose-to-the-curb) in the space for one conventional car, although city parking must be redesigned to 
accommodate such parking configurations.

In the U.S., the Twizy is certified a Low-Speed Vehicle (LSV), only able to drive on 35 mph posted streets or less—but in the case of the Scoot application, the vehicle has a top speed of 25 mph. This reduces the Twizy top speed by 50% from the European version, which is unfortunate. A Scoot Quad user could find herself in an uncomfortable situation going 25 mph on a street with cars going 40 mph or faster, holding-up traffic. Why does the airbag-equipped Twizy have to go so slow in the U.S., when a consumer can legally buy a 186-mph top speed Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle? The Twizy offers more operator protection, static stability, and far more visibility to other drivers than the motorcycle.

In the carsharing space, Daimler is the automaker with the most experience. It launched its carshare venture, Car2Go, in 2008. So far there are 1-million members sharing 13,000 smart-brand cars in 30 cities (in 8 countries). That micro-car is not as small as the Twizy, but meets FMVSS crash standards so there isn’t the travel restriction. Some say the smart cars were originally designed for inner-city use, and not intended for the autobahn or freeway. 

There are several other shared micro EV start-ups to mention. The European shared e-scooter company Gogoro has raised $150-
million in funding for a shared e-scooter system that offers swappable batteries as well, to keep their scooter always charged. Sumo, a start-up in Fayetteville, NC, was the first to offer shared LSVs in North America, with vehicles that look similar to golf carts.

I do believe there is a large opportunity for smaller, right-sized local vehicles, and I believe there is also a significant opportunity for shared smaller vehicles. I just wonder how ride-sourcing services may eclipse urban carshare in a rich citywide MaaS future. When traveling within a downtown city zone, will the consumer choose a shared small urban car or take a ride with Uber? And what type of trips will a consumer prefer the shared little car for?

But whichever way, it is notable that there are now more choices than ever before for urban transport.

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Dan Sturges is mobility design consultant for team red and has been supporting “transformative” transportation projects for nearly 30 years.  He trained as a car designer, worked as an entrepreneur to bring to market a new intermediate vehicle category. He supports a wide range of vehicle design and mobility planning efforts for both government and corporate entities.