Published on January 19th, 2016 | by Michael Barnard54
Hoverboards Aren’t The Rideables Winner
January 19th, 2016 by Michael Barnard
It’s time to declare a clear winner in the rideables space, and it’s not the hoverboard.
This is about rideables from a transit perspective, not a toy perspective. Rideables are small, personal electric vehicles. They can be carried onto mass transit or put in car trunks. They enable people to get to transit connectors which they otherwise wouldn’t walk to — about a quarter mile or 400 meters for bus stops and up to a mile or 1.6 kilometers for high-speed transit according to urban planning rules-of-thumb — and they typically enable people to commute or travel distances of six miles or ten kilometers or more without getting into cars or transit at all. They allow budget-minded commuters to park on the outskirts of downtowns in much cheaper parking and get into the office quickly. Being electric and tiny, the efficiency is very high, the cost per mile or kilometer is very low and the emissions are negligible even on the worst of grids. They reduce congestion, reduce emissions per passenger mile and extend the value proposition of mass transit options.
These are all very positive attributes. Mostly they compete with bicycles, but they have a few major advantages in that no sweat or lycra are required, they don’t need to be locked up and they can be carried onto many more transit systems so first and last mile transportation is more readily available. Of course, they don’t have the personal health benefits of bicycles either. Like bicycles, they are small, exposed, mid-speed vehicles that co-exist with pedestrians and car traffic, so there are safety concerns which need to be addressed. And by definition, they are three season options in places where there four seasons, with none of them being sensible on ice or snow.
For the last several years, new rideables have been invented and introduced to the market. I’ve been riding a Solowheel electric self-balancing unicycle for over two years, having picked it up in hot and humid Singapore when it became apparent that my intent to bike in that climate was ill founded, then used it for picking up take out sushi in Calgary because the best place was further than a quick walk, and now use it in Vancouver when I want to get to a lunch spot that’s more than a few minutes walk. Over the years, I’ve also owned and used bicycles, folding bicycles, and long boards by themselves or in conjunction with transit to get places.
There’s been enough time for each of these rideable categories to shake out, for incremental innovation and market penetration to be visible, and to see which ones are going to dominate.
So what are the factors that should be considered when evaluating these devices?
And how do the various types of devices rate on average across the choices?
The ranking number in this assessment are my opinions based on assessing multiple choices in each of these spaces, following rideables for several years, reading reviews and specifications, and having owned a rideable for over two years.
A few things leap out:
- Electric skateboards are the best choice. They are the most convenient to carry and ride, they are the lightest and most luggable and they are in the mid-price point range for this category. There is little doubt in my mind that electric skateboards will dominate the rideable category over the next few years when considered as a form of transportation. Having your hands free to carry a shopping bag is very convenient.
- Electric stand up scooters are close behind, mostly because of they’ve got good range and price points. These are currently the budget options, but some choices in electric skateboards are very competitive with decent electric standup scooters. This category will be strong as well, simply because there are many people who like the security blanket of handlebars, even though they reduce convenience and increase awkwardness and weight. They are usually inexpensive, with a price point at or under $500 USD even for those scooters capable of supporting adults. No hands free riding though.
- Sit down scooters are attracting a lot of ire from cyclists and pedestrians. They are fast and silent, as heavy as small motorcycles, but sharing paths with pedestrians and cyclists. For whatever reason, they also appear to be the category with the least polite riders. There are pushes in many jurisdictions to get them categorized as motor vehicles and onto the road where they likely belong.
- The most popular late 2015 rideable, hoverboards, are the worst rideable. They are incapable of achieving more than a brisk walk in most conditions, awkward to carry and have the lowest range. They are too slow to share bike paths. And this is even before we start getting into all of the off brands which catch fire.
So electric skateboards are the best choice. But which electric skateboards should you consider? Once again, there are some clear winners in this category that have emerged. This is a subset of the large number of electric skateboards on the market, selected because they are the clear or emerging leaders, or because like the Blink Board, they represent an interesting extension that didn’t really exist before. It’s an indication that this is a dynamic category with significant internal differentiation.
Expand the eye chart to get comparisons and features, but here are the key takeaways.
- The dominant player is Boosted Boards. Their product is good, has been in production for a few years and they have multiple boards. You won’t go wrong with one of their boards, but you won’t necessarily get the best board either. For example, they are close to the least weatherproof board in this list, having stuck to technology which doesn’t lend itself to getting damp at all. This may change, but if you live where it rains at all regularly, this might not be the board for you.
- The Yuneec E-Go is the dominant budget board. It’s got a small motor, no interesting features like lights or smartphone apps and will likely have to be carried up steep hills especially if you are above perhaps 150 lbs, but it has been produced for a couple of years and is one of the least expensive boards on the market.
- If you like flat land carving and the feel of a snowboard or live in Australia, the Bamboo Street might be interesting to you. It’s far from the best transit option on the list, won’t go up steeper hills and is only cheap when it isn’t shipped halfway around the world. But by the same token, that makes it an excellent board to consider in Australia and nearby countries such as Singapore. Originally it wasn’t weather resistant at all but they’ve upgraded somewhat. They are also refreshingly honest about what range means, giving weight and temperature conditions under which they achieve it.
- The lightest boards, the Marbel and the Blink, are hard to recommend despite their weight. The Marbel has been getting poor reviews on production quality and the Blink was literally just announced at CES in January 2016, not to mention likely having lower rideability in real conditions.
- The real outlier is the Zboard. They’ve stayed committed to the odd choice of footpad acceleration and braking pads embedded in the board, and while some people like it, a lot of people find it hard to learn, non-intuitive and easy to get wrong in edgy conditions. If you really like hands-free riding, this is the way to go, but given the high price, lack of weatherproofing, and poor hill performance, this is more of a niche toy than a transportation alternative. The one positive innovation that they have are easy grip handles cut into the board, a convenient way to pick up and carry the board without getting your cuffs dirty.
- Every single electric skateboard comes with brakes, and when you apply the brakes your battery recharges. That’s good for safety and good for range.
That all said, the board I think will dominate is the Inboard M1 which is starting to ship this month.
All of the other boards have incrementally improved on the same drive technology, which is a motor in front of or behind the rear trucks with a belt drive running a cog attached to the wheels. Some, like the top-end Boosted Board have two motors and two belt drives. This has advantages and disadvantages. It is easy to bolt motors onto boards and get them running, and in fact you can buy kits for that. However, the motors are typically very susceptible to water, and the belt and motor induce drag on the board, making them slow down quickly if there’s no power and hard to push when you’ve run out of juice and have to treat them like a real skateboard. And they tend to be heavier.
The Inboard team has built electric motors into the rear wheels with their Manta™ drive. These motors are very light weight, completely waterproof, and spin freely when they aren’t driving or braking. This gives the board a significant edge in various situations, especially when you run out of juice and have to manually kick the board along. They also help the board have close to the best weight in the class.
There are other things which are pretty key for a transportation device.
- They have front and rear LED lights, giving you a bit better sense of road conditions you are heading toward and making you more visible after dark. As jurisdictions are starting to regulate these devices, they are typically demanding lights for night riding, so in addition to making safety sense, they make it more possible to use the board for transportation.
- They have swappable batteries, allowing you to carry two and double your range without any problem, or swap them at home and keep going while one charges. This is unique to the class and a significant differentiator.
- They will have an app which allows you to set different modes for the board as you are learning, or if you want, to maximize range or speed.
- They partnered with a real skateboard maker, Hydroflex Technologies, to ensure that they had a robust and rideable product designed from the ground up for electric transportation.
There are two downsides to the Inboard M1 which are relatively significant. The first is that as of writing there are no production reviews and quality assessments. They are doing a great job of getting the board under lots of riders’ feet including pro kitesurfers and skateboarders — all of whom like it a lot — but that’s not the same as shipping to a few hundred or a few thousand people and having good quality. That’s a reason to hold off on putting in an order. This is certainly reduced as a concern by partnering with Hydroflex, but there are a lot of electronics Hydroflex has no experience with in the product.
And of course, it’s not the cheapest board in the list. Unless you live in Manhattan, Vancouver, or Sydney, it’s unlikely to be your primary form of transportation year round, so it’s probably going to be in addition to a bicycle, a car and a transit pass. The cost is not prohibitive, but this is a factor a lot of people will consider. I expect in a year however, the in-wheel drive technology will be copied or licensed and good cheaper boards will appear with it. If price is your sole driving factor, there are cheaper boards to consider today.
Urban transit is enhanced with rideable options, but they aren’t all created equally. Fad toys like the hoverboards are an interesting diversion, as are heavy and awkward sit-down scooters, but like self-balancing unicycles, they are niche products in transit terms. Electric skateboards and stand-up scooters will be most common on transit and most commonly sharing a bike path near you.