Just Roll with It!

Electromobility has also found its way into the so-called ‘last mile.’ Commuters, hipsters and urbanites are all jumping on their e-scooters, hoverboards and monowheels. Are these electric micro-vehicles the solution to urban traffic chaos?

E-scooter: Fast and easy – but safe too? Photo: Akaberka – shutterstock

Back when Michael J. Fox was humming around on his hoverboard in the second installment of the movie “Back to the Future” – almost exactly 30 years ago – everyone wanted a floating skateboard upon which they could glide elegantly over the congested streets. Such technology has been available for a few years now. Indeed, not flying, but rolling at the very least. And with this innovation came many others: mono- or airwheels, Segways, e-scooters and e-skateboards. They are now part of the streetscape in many cities. Attractive hire options further increase their practicality. Simultaneously, however, the assortment of ‘fail’ and crash compilations with such vehicles on the prevailing video platforms is also increasing, and dramatically at that. With a key focus on traffic safety, solutions are being sought in Germany that both permit the use of specific concepts and simultaneously protect the other road users. Only recently Germany opened the way for e-scooters.

Between scooter and unicycle

Meanwhile, electric scooters with pole – e-scooters – are most commonly found carving through many European cities. In Germany, manufacturers of these speedsters have to apply for a type-approval at the Federal Office for Motor Transport, before they can be send on public roads. The regulation states for example that the e-scooters are allowed a maximum speed between 6 and 20 km/h.  Moreover, an e-scooter has to be equipped with a handlebar or handrail and its maximum dimension should be 70 cm wide, 1.4 m high and 2 m long. The maximum weight of the e-scooter should not exceed 55 kg. Furthermore, it should be equipped with two brakes, a light and bell.

In addition to the technical requirements, it is also important to follow the traffic rules: In Germany, e-scooters are not allowed on sidewalks. You have to drive on cycle paths or even roads. E-scooter drivers have to stay one after the other. Driving side by side for having a little chat is not permitted. If you do not observe this, a fine of 15 Euros can be imposed. Also you should rather do without free-handles driving or attaching behind another car. Driving without a license leads to a fine of 70 Euros. For driving without a light you have to pay 20 Euros. The fine will be 40 Euros when the e-scooter has got no insurance label. Whereas wearing a helmet is not compulsory. You are allowed to drive an e-scooter from the age of 14 up.

By the way, the well-known Segways with their handlebars and big outer wheels are permitted on public roads, provided that they are insured, feature a light and bell and that the users have a moped license.

Hoverboard, airwheel or monowheel

Hoverboard: The Hovertrax has countless imitations, some with dangerous, overheating batteries. Photo: Denis Production - shutterstock

Hoverboard: The Hovertrax has countless imitations, some with dangerous, overheating batteries. Photo: Denis Production – shutterstock

Hoverboards are two-wheeled vehicles without handlebars. They comprise a tread plate mounted between two wheels, one either side of the feet. The device is controlled by shifting one’s weight. Just like electric skateboards, they are banned from use in public transport in Germany. Personal liability insurance won’t pay out any claims involving the boards – which can reach up to 20 km/h. Those that get caught must reckon with a fine of 70 euros and a demerit point on their driver’s license. The same applies to so-called airwheels and monowheels. These single-wheeled vehicles without handlebars have treads mounted either side of the central wheel and are also controlled by the rider shifting their weight. The German Federal Minister of Transport, Andreas Scheuer (CSU), even intends to permit vehicles without handlebars or handrails on roads. The planned regulation seeks to regulate where and under which circumstances electric microvehicles can be used. Until then they can only be moved on private premises.

City usage

Segway: Shrinking down to the ‘Ninebot,’ the self-balancing single-axle steed has gone from tourist fun to commuter tool. Photo: ImYanis - shutterstock

Segway: Shrinking down to the ‘Ninebot,’ the self-balancing single-axle steed has gone from tourist fun to commuter tool. Photo: ImYanis – shutterstock

Sales are booming across the US and France. Electric microvehicles are seen as a modern mobility alternative in traffic-choked cities. German Federal Minister for Transport Andreas Scheuer is of the same view. He praises the devices as a great opportunity for urban mobility, especially for completing the “last mile,” those final steps from the train to the office. Over longer distances, e-scooters and others of their ilk are not practical. Their maximum ranges of 15 to 35 kilometers and top speeds of 20 km/h limit their effectiveness to the city.  In cities such as Paris, Moscow, Zurich, London, Vienna, Stockholm, Tel Aviv and more than 60 US cities, multiple providers offering e-scooter rental have sprung up.

USA, the long-suffering pioneer

Many in the United States have already experienced both the light and dark sides of new mobility. Similar to rental bikes, in many places e-scooters can be easily booked via a smartphone app that allows the customer to see exactly where free scooters are to be found. There are no collection points or fixed stations. The customers – predominantly aged between 20 and 50 – simply leave the scooters at their destination. This convenience often causes a new inconvenience when the electric scooters are left around for days or when they are thoughtlessly thrown to the ground.

How and where these vehicles are able to take part in regular road traffic is regulated differently from region to region. In the United States and elsewhere, the mini scooters are permitted to race along streets and cycle paths at up to 30 km/h. Austria has also permitted the usage of e-scooters since 2018, and legally considers them as bicycles. Nevertheless, even here, the miniature vehicles rush through pedestrian zones, giving rise to fierce debate as to their safe integration into the urban mobility system. They are too slow for the roads, and thus present an unexpected obstacle, while they are too fast for footpaths and thereby dangerous for passers-by. And all too often, bike paths are still missing from the equation.

Onewheel: This e-mini offroader can also be used on country trails. Photo: Aleksandar Todorovic - shutterstock

Onewheel: This e-mini offroader can also be used on country trails. Photo: Aleksandar Todorovic – shutterstock

While they are predominantly produced in China, the small electric vehicles are hardly used in the People’s Republic. Despite this, personal electric mobility solutions are far more widespread here than in the rest of the world. The Chinese are more likely to use larger electric scooters – displacing the bicycle and the polluting two-stroke moped. Over 26 million electric scooters are sold in China annually according to ‘Handelsblatt.’ In the battle against smog, the government has massively subsidized the purchase of personal electric vehicles. An electric two-wheeler can be yours for the equivalent of 350 euros. These are far better integrated into the traffic flow and are still able to reach any address in the city – they just aren’t permitted to be brought aboard buses or trains.

A trend with risks

Only recently, the scooter rentals Tier, Voi and Circ have obtained type approval for their vehicles. Moreover, the two US market giants Lime and Bird are already on the starting blocks. Whether these have learned from their mistakes is yet to be seen. Their new e-scooters should in theory be safer and longer-lasting. In the past, several scooters have disintegrated while being ridden, or their brakes have failed. According to an investigation by American physicians, victims have suffered broken bones, lacerations and serious head injuries. The New Zealand cities of Auckland and Dunedin recently banned the use of Lime scooters due to critical safety issues. Against this background, it sounds positively absurd that California abolished mandatory helmet wearing for riders over 18 years of age. Across new markets, the focus on safety could be key to making sure that electro-scooters are not just a fun toy for a handful of hipsters, but actually make a meaningful addition to public transport.

3 Questions for Markus Egelhaaf

Markus Egelhaaf, DEKRA Accident Research. Photo: Thomas Küppers

Markus Egelhaaf, DEKRA Accident Research. Photo: Thomas Küppers

DEKRA solutions: To some, electric microvehicles represent an important tool in controlling urban pollution. To others, they are at best an annoyance, at worst a major safety hazard. What does accident research say?

Egelhaaf: Not everything that is technically possible is also practical for everyday use. Having said that, some vehicles have the potential to make some car trips superfluous. Specifically e-scooters featuring good brakes, bicycle bells and good lighting could have a positive impact. However, it is necessary that we define the safety-relevant components that need to be made compulsory, how fast these vehicles may travel, and where they may be used. They certainly have zero place on sidewalks and in pedestrian areas. Regulations similar to those for bicycles and pedelecs may be conceivable.

What about the electrical safety of vehicles and their chargers?

Our experience in recent years has yielded some massive safety issues arising from batteries and battery management. Inferior-quality hoverboards alone were blamed for several fires and instigated large-scale recalls. In addition to the CE marking, attention should be paid to recognized independent test certifications. As the vehicles’ components are exposed to high stress during frequent use – vibrations and possible falls to name but a couple –, going for the cheapest option is certainly not a wise solution.

How can integration into public transport work?

It has to be clearly defined which types of vehicles are allowed, under what circumstances and in what areas of traffic. Unfortunately, one cannot assume that all road users will be considerate towards others. Driving at 20 km/h on sidewalks or through pedestrian zones will certainly not be conducive to improving acceptance of such vehicles. Also, the usage on 50 km/h thoroughfares holds its own set of severe risks. The best traffic routes for these vehicles are safe bike lanes, and traffic zones limited to 30 km/h. Expansion of such routes is not only of benefit to the owners of these electric microvehicles, but also cyclists.

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