One of the biggest trends in technology at the moment is the slow march towards electric cars. One day, in what will hopefully be the near future, we’ll hit a tipping point where most new cars aren’t powered by fossil fuels, but by clean electricity. This is going to be great news for the environment — both in terms of climate change, and in terms of air quality in cities.
There’s just one problem though: even if every car on the road was powered by an electric motor, we’d still find ourselves stuck in traffic. And Britain is wasting a lot of time. According to one study, drivers in cities spend on average one day a year stuck in traffic. London is — unsurprisingly — the worst culprit, wasting 74 hours a year of motorists’ time — followed by Manchester, Lincoln (yes, Lincoln) and Birmingham.
So what can we do about congestion?
A company called NIU — pronounced “new” — is hoping that the answer is… electric scooters.
Founded by 2015, the Beijing-based company has already sold over 380,000 e-scooters in 2000 cities, in 20 countries. This week in Paris NIU revealed its latest models, the N-GT and M+, which it says have been specially customised for its European launch.
Both scooters are all-electric — the N-GT, which is the premium model, sports a 3000W Bosch electromotor and can achieve speeds of up to 70kmph and 130km range — all for €4499 (about £4000). The scooter works in three different modes: sport, dynamic and energy saving modes, which can be easily flipped with a toggle button.
Feature-wise, the N-GT has many of the modern conveniences we increasingly expect from our vehicles, such as automatic headlights, cruise control, a USB charging port for your phone and the ability to use an app to find your scooter in a crowded car park. The display will change colour based on your speed too.
Oh and the best part? It has two removable batteries that can be charged on a normal domestic plug — which the company says will “fast charge” in 3.5 hours. This means that you can scoot to work, plug in a relatively portable battery under your desk and steal your office’s electricity, and then it’ll be good to go by the time you can leave. Though if you have a normal length commute you’d only really need to charge every 3 or 4 days. Amusingly, at the launch event, NIU showed a video that contained a brief shot of a woman carrying one of the batteries in what I guess was supposed to make it look like she was carrying it with the same ease with which you carry a phone. But it didn’t really work as it still looked like she was carrying a large scooter battery.
The M+ is similar, though it only has a 1200W motor and a max speed of 45kmph, with a range of “over 100” kilometres and just the one removable battery. So why might you want the M+? It’s only €2599 (about £2300).
Having tried the latter out for a very brief few minutes in a closed public car park, I can confirm that the M+ is an enjoyable scooter to ride — it's a smooth ride, and the acceleration curve makes it very exciting if you want to do whatever the scooter equivalent of putting your foot down is.
NIU’s plan isn’t just to boast about the scooters in terms of speed or battery. The scooters contain what the company calls a “Cloud-ECU” (engine control unit) — and the scooters remain permanently connected to NIU thanks to the company’s partnership with Vodafone.
What this means in practice is that your scooter can use 15 built in sensors to collect over 200 data points — and feed these back home.
This data, which is anonymised and stored on Amazon AWS, can then be analysed by NIU and used to improve the on-board software — which can then be upgraded over the air, so your scooter should get better over time.
One example of this is NIU’s Field-Oriented Controller — the part of the bike which is used to control acceleration and deceleration, which is challenging to make behave consistently as by definition, the motor will be operating at different speeds. By using the data sent back from real world users to the cloud, the company was able to tweak the software so that the controllers were more efficient, giving a small performance boost and perhaps meaning slightly more range, or slightly better battery life.
What’s intriguing too is that currently the company is using only a tiny slice of the data that it could choose to collect. For example, according to Director of International Joseph Constanty, right now the API only exchanges 18 pieces of data out of a possible 202. As soon as the company can figure out a clever way to use a datapoint, it can send out an over-the-air patch, and improve everyone’s scooting experience.
For example, one currently unused datapoint is the ability to use built-in gyroscopes to detect whether the scooter is standing upright or has fallen over. So, if you have any ideas on how the company can make use of that data, answers on a postcard to Beijing please.
With all of this data at work, I also wondered about autonomy: Could we one day see a scooter that is capable of performing functions semi-autonomously, like many modern cars? "Two wheels is really hard — but if you had one more wheel, that becomes more possible", says Constanty. So does that hint at a future NIU tricycle scooter? Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t’ saying anything.
So the N-GT and M+ hardware is pretty cool — but how do these vehicles answer the mobility question? First and foremost the answer is obvious: scooters use less road space, so more people can be squeezed on to the same roads. But NIU also wants its scooters to be taken up by the most modern of services: transport sharing platforms.
Like how London has cycle sharing, other cities around the world have been experimenting with e-scooters. Companies called CityScoot and eCooltra have scooters parked all over Paris and Barcelona respectively, to give two examples, and if you want a ride, all you need to do is use an app to scan a QR code — then you can take a helmet out of the storage compartment and scoot to your destination.
NIU particularly has this segment in mind with its products. ,In a bid to make NIU the go-to scooter for these companies, the company’s bikes have an open API that can plug into any sharing company’s systems, so that companies can easily make the bikes unlock at the press of a button, as well as monitor their location and other analytics.
In fact, though NIU is selling scooters to individual consumers today, NIU believes that in the not too distant future, this isn’t the future. "In ten years time, obviously we won't own things [like scooters]. If we still do, that will fascinate me as it shouldn't be that way", says Constanty.
So could electric scooters be the solution to all of our congestion problems? Next time you’re stuck in traffic, you might hope so.