How to feed a hungry scooter

As in nature, the small evolve the fastest. Micromobility vehicles are no exception and have improved at a fast pace since the boom of shared micromobility services in 2018. And we are not only talking about the vehicles themselves but about the whole environment allowing to operate such services.

In a race towards profitability, battery charging has become the key element, especially in the scooter sharing industry. Back in 2018, charging costs represented no less than 47% of Bird’s average ride revenue. The room for improvement was massive, and operators promptly started working on charging costs and operational efficiency.

To swap or not to swap

Battery charging impacts operational costs in multiple ways. There is (i) the cost of the electricity itself (which represents around 0.10€ for a 500Wh battery), (ii) the cost of labour and vehicles used in recharging operations and (iii) the loss of revenue due to the unavailability of the scooter while it’s being charged.

Of course, operators cannot do a lot to improve the cost of electricity, as most energy markets in Europe are regulated. But the large adoption of scooter and bike models with swappable batteries radically changed the way they operate. Before, operators were loading the whole scooter in a van and were carrying it to the outskirts of a city to be charged in a warehouse. Now, the staff is moving in light electric vehicles (cargo bikes or micro trucks) throughout the city, swapping empty batteries on the spot. With shorter actions and lighter vehicles, the benefits to operational costs are important, while the availability of the vehicles increases significantly.

But some major companies still believe that scooters or bikes with fixed batteries are the best option. Bird and Link, who are designing their own models, chose to integrate massive batteries (around 1kWh), aiming to drastically lower the charging frequency to around once a week, according to Bird. The main arguments in favour of such a solution are lower safety risks, as the battery is encased in a protective compartment and not man-handled, a better response to theft and vandalism, and (according to its supporters) a lower environmental impact, as you only need one battery per vehicle, versus 1.5 for the swappable battery model.

Whatever the technology used, operators are still exploring ways of improving their operating model, mostly by working on optimising the need for staff interventions and their fleets availability.

Homemade recipe

Some operators are willing to keep their hands on all the battery-related actions. Dott aims to control 100% of its operation in-house to ensure the quality and safety of its vehicles. Its only way to innovate is therefore to act on its operating model.

Through a recent partnership with Yespark, Dott has created local charging hubs in 3 Parisian underground car parks (with more to come), which avoids bringing all of the empty batteries back to the main warehouse in the suburbs. “The main goal of this new battery charging process is to improve the quality of service and the vehicle availability across Paris”, explains Nicolas Gorse, GM for France at Dott. By cutting down the delivery time for full batteries, the company is getting closer to its 100% availability goal, while also ensuring that its quality and safety standards for battery charging are met, thanks to specifically designed charging cabinets.

TIER launched a similar partnership with APCOA, a leading parking operator in Germany. It will use the underground car parks to create battery swapping hubs in Düsseldorf, Berlin, Cologne and Hamburg, as well as create dedicated parking zones for scooters.

Both initiatives also highlight the potential of underground car parks to become the mobility hubs of tomorrow. Battery charging or swapping cabinets, scooter, ebike or moped charging stations can all give a second life to these in-demand urban areas.

Docking stations: back to the future

For some, public bike-sharing services with stations and docks might represent an outdated approach to shared micromobility, that cannot compete with the flexibility offered by technology-driven dockless solutions.

On the contrary, some operators are convinced that street infrastructure still has a role to play. Bolt recently launched its own scooter charging docks in its home-base of Tallinn (Estonia), being the first scooter operator to do so. On top of charging benefits, docks provide added value against theft and vandalism, while improving the parking behaviour of riders.

It means that scooters require a specific locking and charging device to be compatible with those docks. Ardo Reinsalu, Head of Vehicles at Bolt, confirms that “we can easily retrofit any of our existing scooter models at low cost. This was of course very important in terms of sustainability”. The environmental benefits are one of the main reasons for Bolt to have chosen docks: the need to travel around the city to collect or swap batteries is minimal, decommissioned scooter batteries can be recycled to power charging docks and the charging time can be adapted to off-peak electricity tariffs.

From a user perspective, docks also offer a fast, comfortable and seamless experience. No need to take a photo to confirm parking, or to handle a battery… just lock and you are done.

The difficulty with docks is finding locations where you can install them. In dense urban areas where they are most needed, public space is becoming scarce and local authorities are getting more and more reluctant to allocate it to private companies. Most major cities are home to (at least) 3 operators, with 2- or 3-year licences, so mayors will think twice before accepting the installation of electric furniture in the streets for such a short period of time, particularly if it only benefits a portion of the active shared scooters.

Passing the buck to the riders

To drastically save on labour cost, what better solution than transferring responsibility for battery charging to the customer? Taking advantage of the battery swap trend, some operators are developing a charging ecosystem around vehicles that would allow riders themselves to swap the batteries. No doubt that the battery swap service offered by Gogoro, the leading e-mopeds supplier in Taiwan, is a source of inspiration for these R&D departments.

In March 2020, Jump was the first company to showcase a public battery swap station, able to host the batteries used on both its scooters and e-bikes. While it has not been seen anywhere yet (Lime has taken over Jump a couple of months later), the solution might nonetheless be relevant today, as the latest Lime scooter and e-bike models are using this very battery.

TIER has also launched its Energy Network, built on the technology developed by the company PushMe (acquired in Feb. 2020). A trial with 50 charging stations, supporting a fleet of 1,000 scooters, was held in Tampere (Finland) during the summer of 2020. These stations are now available in 5 cities in Germany (Berlin, Darmstadt, Frankfurt, Munich and Münster) and have been recently launched in Paris and 4 Swedish cities (Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö and Uppsala).

To get around the problem of public space occupation, TIER has signed partnerships with chains of convenience stores. The company claims that these stores will see their sales increase thanks to all the riders that will come to swap batteries. But the operator still needs to reward the shop owners by offering a percentage of the revenue generated by the scooters whose batteries have been swapped thanks to them. Then, TIER also needs to give incentives to the riders so they actually use the Swap Spots (in Paris, they get 15 minutes of ride for free or 2.25€ in credit).

Eventually, the gain on charging costs will remain negligible. And furthermore, there are some serious safety issues to be considered. Critics of the user-swappable batteries solution often mention the safety hazard as an important drawback. Lithium ion batteries are indeed sensitive to shocks, which can create heat reactions. Without a proper casing protecting the cells, leaving batteries in the hands of users not trained to handle them risks jeopardising their good condition.

One for all and all for one

Whatever the solution, these battery charging solutions have one drawback: they are restricted to a single operator. To provide the maximum benefits to cities and become a sustainable option, charging points should be open to any scooter operator. Bolt, for example, claims to be open to discussions on integrating other scooter models, but owning the station design is too much of a competitive advantage.

Vehicle-agnostic options might come from specific companies like Duckt, Kuhmute or Swiftmile. They develop charging stations that only require a light retrofit of the shared scooters. Swiftmile’s station is the most successful so far, with partnerships with Bird, Spin and TIER. Riders have to park their scooters in the racks, then plug in the charging cable. But “a wireless version will soon be available” confirms Swiftmile’s CTO Keith Moravick. The company signed an interesting partnership with APCOA, and is now powering TIER’s scooters in some Stuttgart parking garages.

This creates a similar problem to the user-swappable battery cabinets. You cannot imagine having a row of different models labelled with each operator’s name, be it in a shop or in a street. The Swedish company Teleport is trying to set a battery standard for micromobility that would not only allow this interoperability between operators, but also between vehicle types.

But setting standards will surely be a headache. In an industry still undergoing consolidation, and with consensus on best practices for battery charging not yet reached, it will take some time before you see in the streets of your beloved city a dock or battery swapping cabinet allowing you to charge any vehicle, shared or owned.

Written by Alexandre Gauquelin and Julien Chamussy, with the help of Cameron Rimington

Thanks to Nicolas Gorse (Dott), Keith Moravick (Swiftmile) and Ardo Reinsalu (Bolt)

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Co-founder & CEO of fluctuo