Business & Tech

INNOVATION ECONOMY

This could be the Volvo of e-scooters

Cambridge startup Superpedestrian says its scooter is able sense potential maintenance issues before they become a problem.
Cambridge startup Superpedestrian says its scooter is able sense potential maintenance issues before they become a problem.

On a Tuesday afternoon in June, I mounted an electric scooter on a Cambridge side street and mashed down the accelerator. This particular scooter, matte black and sturdily built, did a good job of smoothing out Brookline Avenue’s uneven pavement. Two bicycle-style hand brakes made decelerating dead simple. It felt like the Volvo of e-scooters.

I was riding on a not-yet-released vehicle designed by Superpedestrian, a Cambridge company founded in 2012. Its first product was a bike wheel (and companion app) that could turn any bike into an electric bike. Like the scooter, it also delivered a fun test ride. But the price crept up past $1,700, limiting its appeal.

So Superpedestrian’s new strategy involves tapping into the e-scooter trend, selling thousands of its Super-1 scooters to companies that operate fleets of the vehicles in cities around the world.

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The company has so far raised about $50 million from investors, including Boston-based Spark Capital and General Catalyst, says CEO Assaf Biderman. About $10 million of that has flowed into the company coffers in 2019 to support the new strategy, he adds.

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Of course, the company doesn’t like to describe itself as a scooter maker. “To characterize what they’re building as a scooter is wrong,” says Santo Politi, a partner at Spark and one of the company’s board members. “It’s an end-to-end system. It uses machine learning to predict what is likely to fail. It makes smart decisions.”

Engage jargon translator: The Super-1 scooter has built-in sensors designed to prevent some common malfunctions in e-scooters — like a short-circuit caused by water.

The scooter can also identify and report on other problems that will soon require repair, allowing a company operating a fleet to do preventive maintenance.

“The process of fixing these scooters is very cumbersome if the scooter doesn’t know and can’t report on what is wrong,” Biderman says. Repairs can take a scooter off the street for weeks, he says.

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Superpedestrian’s vehicle carries a larger battery and has a more-efficient power train than rivals, Biderman says, which allows it to be charged “every three to seven days,” rather than every night — common for the Bird and Lime scooters being tested in Brookline.

And he predicts the Super-1 will have a longer lifetime because of its durability.

Extending the life span and reducing repair and recharging time will help improve the economics of running a rental fleet of e-scooters. That’s the company’s pitch. But Biderman doesn’t want to be specific about how its price will compare to the prices of e-scooters available today. All he will say is that if you compare the Super-1 with an e-scooter with similar range — 18 to 24 miles — “you’d be around the same price, give or take 5 percent.” The company plans to sell not just scooters, but the software that will help manage a fleet. As with most other e-scooters, the vehicle will be made in China.

The question: Will scooter operators like Lime, Bird, and Jump (owned by Uber) invest in a more durable scooter, or simply buy the cheapest vehicles they can find and view them as disposable? (Ruffians do sometimes pitch the vehicles into rivers and ponds, after all.)

You could, after all, buy a Volvo if you wanted a sturdier and better-designed taxi. So “why do people use Fords?” asks Michael Burtov, an e-bicycle entrepreneur in Cambridge who has followed, and competed with, Superpedestrian. “These scooters are really a commodity. People abuse them,” says Burtov, CEO of the startup GeoOrbital.

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It’s also tough for small companies like his or Superpedestrian to get volume discounts from suppliers, Burtov notes, which can make competing on price difficult.

But Timothy Ericson, Zagster’s CEO, says e-scooter operators in big cities “are looking to move away from the cheaper, off-the-shelf scooters,” which typically cost around $500. Ericson says there’s a nuanced decision for them to make, however: “Where does more capital expenditure hurt you, versus lower your total cost of ownership” over the life of the scooter? “I don’t think anyone knows for sure yet,” he says.

Zagster, a Cambridge startup, sells technology and services that support bike and scooter programs for cities, universities, and landlords. Ericson thinks the latter could find the Super-1 especially appealing, since “they value premium and are less price-sensitive.”

Superpedestrian has been putting the Super-1 through all kinds of testing to see how it will handle heat, humidity, and rough roads. “We learn, improve, and keep improving until we get it right,” Biderman says.

Politi, the investor, says Superpedestrian has “a giant backlog of signed contracts” worth tens of millions of dollars — if not more. “They just have to start manufacturing,” he says. “They’re on the verge of all this.”

Plenty of companies are jockeying to be major players in the emerging business of “micro-mobility” — getting people out of their cars and onto bikes and scooters for short trips in cities. Superpedestrian is hoping that its second product will put it in prime position.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.