Could new technology trickling down from self-driving vehicle research revamp the landscape for electric scooters that, over the past four years, has rattled government leaders and pushed pedestrians to the breaking point?
Rentable e-scooters arrived in Salt Lake City three years ago in much the same way they debuted in cities around the world — unannounced, unregulated and, for at least some folks, unwelcome.
The scooters are easy (and a lot of fun) to ride and widely hailed by experts as an excellent, albeit seasonal cure for one of the hardest pieces of the public transportation puzzle to solve — the so-called “first and last mile” connections that get us from our homes or work to transit hubs and back again.
But the biggest knock on the vehicles in Utah and everywhere else they’ve roosted is they become a nightmare when mixed in with pedestrian traffic (even on Salt Lake City’s mostly deluxe-width sidewalks). The scooters also create potential hazards and obstacles when carelessly dropped by riders in the middle of walkways, near the entrances of businesses and in areas where the vehicles block wheelchair and disability access to buildings and public transit stops.
The zippy two-wheelers operate via software that lives on your smartphone and helps users both locate available vehicles, and pay for their rides, typically a $1 unlocking charge and 30 to 40 cents per mile for the journey.
Now, new technology that outfits each scooter with a camera that can “see” the surfaces on which it’s traveling, coupled with onboard computing power that improves over time and can adapt to changing streetscapes, is capable of detecting when a rider is operating illegally.
When that happens the device can trigger an audible warning or slow the vehicle down to a crawl until it is steered back to a street or bike lane. The same system can also detect when a scooter is being parked where it shouldn’t and give another distinct audio signal until the vehicle is placed in an approved area.
In short, the innovation is set to be a game changer.
While the first U.S.-based versions of the rentable e-scooter platforms showed up in California in 2017, it took until the following summer for Salt Lake City to see its own two-wheelers on the streets (and yes, sidewalks) in an arrival that was expected but nevertheless went down during the dark of night and without warning.
Since then as many as six operators have tried to entice Salt Lake riders with systems that are more or less identical when it comes to software, though deploying electric scooters that range from beefy, overbuilt workhorses to all-plastic versions that seem more like toys than commuter vehicles. One company even tried a sit-down version, and though all are intended for a single rider, I comfortably accommodated a 7-year-old for occasional duo-rides around Liberty Park.
Along the way, Salt Lake City has taken a few shots at reining in unfettered scooter expansion, placing limits on total number of scooters any single vendor can put out on the streets and stipulating where those vehicles can, and cannot go. The directions have included offering bonuses for ensuring that neighborhoods with the biggest transit access challenges — like areas west of the freeway — get regular drop-offs.
Performance carrots have been balanced with sticks in the form of potential fines for vendors that don’t respond quickly to removing scooters left in hazardous and/or inappropriate locations.
But enforcement has been essentially nonexistent as a matter of resources and simple logistics. When’s the last time you’ve seen a beat cop walking the streets of downtown and, for that matter, how would one handle the hot pursuit of a rogue scooter rider?
In 2020, I wrote a story analyzing a year’s worth of records that included resident correspondence with Salt Lake officials over issues related to e-scooters as well as the results of a survey overseen by the transportation department that collected local sentiment on e-scooters.
An overwhelming majority of those emails railed against their use, with many citing hazardous sidewalk encounters as well as haphazard parking. And the city’s survey effort showed a marked divide with wide support coming from those who tried out the scooters and mostly condemnation from those who hadn’t.
One downtown resident who wrote that e-scooter riders were “threatening pedestrians on a daily basis” called for an outright ban on the “dangerous vehicles,” but in lieu of that wanted to see ramped-up enforcement.
“While I feel the city should ban the use of e-scooters and e-bikes completely, at a minimum, they should be controlled with city ordinance and strict enforcement,” the emailer wrote. “I and all other downtown residents walking the sidewalks face the physical threat and the emotional toll of unexpected severe injury on a daily basis, which is destroying the livability and walkability of downtown Salt Lake. Our time for action is now. We need a member on the City Council to lead us through the process of either banning or strictly controlling and enforcing these dangerous vehicles.”
Much of the correspondence rang a similar tone, and council members followed up by passing a set of sweeping rule changes at the end of last year. The effort codified guidelines that have been part of the interim agreements under which e-scooter businesses in Salt Lake City have been operating for the past couple years while adding some new measures, including potential fines for individuals who misbehave on scooters that can reach $750 per incident.
Of course these new mandates came at the end of a year in which the streets of the state’s capital city were quieted by the impacts of COVID-19, and negative encounters have simply not been a thing.
But as the first glimmers of spring and a post-vaccination world appear on the horizon, city officials are in the midst of whittling down the number of e-scooter vendors, currently a group of four, down to just one or two.
Among the applicants (though city officials have inexplicably refused to say how many) is Spin, a former Bay Area startup that was acquired for a cool $100 million a few years ago by Detroit powerhouse Ford Motor Co.
Unlike some of its competitors, Spin took the time to give notice, acquire a business license and work with Salt Lake leaders before distributing its bright orange vehicles on city streets in 2019. Now, it’s also leading the pack in bringing the new sensor technology to the market and provided me with a demo last week.
Try as I might, I was unable to fool the system into failure. A distinct drumbeat warning sounded within a second every time I rolled onto a sidewalk and even abrupt on-off maneuvers were quickly detected.
Crosswalks also get their own audible signal to alert riders and another indicates when you’re in a designated bike lane, the preferred operating space when scootering downtown.
Ado Milicevic, Spin operations manager for Salt Lake City, said the technology developed by a company called Drover was 95% accurate right out of the gate and has been quickly closing that small gap thanks to machine-learning processes that are turning Salt Lake test rides into better sensing.
Milicevic also noted that the system can be tied to individual users and has the potential to be part of system that could penalize riders who commit serial infractions by suspending account access.
The technology developed by Drover artificial intelligence is similar to onboard sensor/computing innovations under development for autonomous vehicles and can be tied directly to a scooter’s drivetrain to automatically slow speeds to a crawl when the vehicles enter forbidden rider zones or even recognize operational blackout areas — like Temple Square, the Gallivan Plaza and private parking garages in Salt Lake City — and bring the vehicles to a complete halt.
While our collective experience with high-tech advances has shown us that few innovations end up being the panaceas they may appear to be at first blush, it appears Salt Lake City has an opportunity at make a major leap in toning down issues that have come with this fun and effective new micro-transportation option.