At CleanTechnica, we are passionate about opening doors to the solutions of tomorrow. We discuss electric trains, planes, and automobiles and the renewable energy solutions that will power them. As we look to the future, we see a new seam between the manual and the motorized that we call the personal electric vehicle.
Personal Electric Vehicles
These new devices are probing at the global marketplace with iterative innovations that attempt to eke out the needs of the world’s consumers and build one product that can rule them all. As lithium ion battery prices have fallen in recent years, devices like the Boosted Board have quickly defined and taken over the electric skateboard market, pulling 75-80% of its customers from the blue ocean of consumers who had never ridden a skateboard before the Boosted Board.
Batteries and the motors they power have found their way into electric bikes (aka ebikes), enabling commuters to bike to work over longer distances, at higher speeds, without arriving in a soppy, sweaty mess like I did on my visit to the team over at Viriciti and Maxem in Amsterdam a few years back. eBikes and other personal electric portables make commuting fun and open up modes of transport to more customers than would have otherwise been able to use them.
Much like their larger counterparts, personal electric vehicles often result in the EV smile but with a design that, by definition, can only accommodate a single person. These devices allow for the electrification of transit — or enable the use of mass transit — at a much lower price point than the purchase of an electric vehicle. Taking a car out of the picture automagically eliminates the emissions not only associated with getting around in a car, it eliminates the emissions associated with building a car.
Their portability allows riders to ride an electric skateboard or unicycle to the nearest bus stop and take the bus most of the way to work or school, and then from the bus stop to the final destination, bridging the so-called ‘last mile’. This requirement demands portability and a compact size that allows riders to quickly store the device when getting on a train or bus as well as a weight that can be lifted or moved down several flights of stairs to an underground station or up to an office.
Streets are under full assault with this new generation of personal electric vehicles as many cities punt the newly motorized vehicles from the safety of sidewalks into the wilderness of the street where safety is all but an afterthought. Riding an electric skateboard at 20+ miles per hour on roads meant for cars is not my idea of good time, even if it can be done safely.
As we propel ourselves faster and faster towards the utopia of personal electric vehicles, I’ll pause with what is hopefully starting to sound like a monotonous public safety announcement. Many of these new technologies add batteries and motors to formerly recreational devices like skateboards, bicycles, and even unicycles. While exhilarating and far more useful in their electrified state, these devices have also been granted the ability to exact far more damage to our delicate bodies than their pre-Frankensteined manifestations were capable of. As a result, it is far more important that you wear proper protective equipment on these things. After riding numerous electrified things, I have the scars and aches to show that it’s not a matter of experience or age, but rather it is just a matter of time until you fall. So protect yourself.
Moving right along, each form factor out there has its own strengths and weaknesses, so we’ll deconstruct each of those at a high level to see what the ideal form factor for the ultimate personal electric portable might look like.
eBikes are fantastic ways to extend the range of a traditional bicycle, increase the speed at which they travel, and reduce the sweat factor that can spoil the ride to work or school. Their inflatable tires, comfortable form factor, and easy to learn mechanics have made bicycles a go-to form of transit for many millions of people over the years. The traditionally inflexible design of standard-sized bicycles makes them ill-suited for sharing with small and large people, though some innovative companies like Riese and Müller have started to remove this as a barrier with intelligent designs that allow for any member of a family to ride on a single, adjustable bike. The large size of bikes make adding a motor and batteries capable of a useful amount of assist a non-issue, as can be seen from the plethora of very functional ebikes on the market.
On the other hand, the large size of bicycles makes them a liability when navigating up or down stairs to get to a train station and are not as easily slid into the trunk of a car for the occasional ride to dinner or home.
Electric skateboards improve on the portability of bicycles while still competing with range in the 10-15 mile | 16-24 kilometer range per charge. That range meets the needs of most consumers but can still leave many commuters out to dry or left to charge at their destination in order to make the return trip. The form factor of an electric skateboard makes the learning curve very short, as evidenced by the 75-80% of Boosted Boards that are sold to non-skateboarders.
A well designed electric skateboard can allow for the very same exhilarating ride of a late night downhill session at the turn of a knob, meaning those very same dangers of a downhill course now exist on the streets around your home. The fun factor draws in more buyers who will then be forced to justify the $1000+ purchase by using the board for more functional means like commuting. These are all good things, but the experience suffers relative to a bicycle due to the smaller diameter, harder rubber wheels. Skateboard wheels simply don’t absorb as much shock as bicycle tires.
We put the two head to head on the Evolve GT Carbon 2 in 1 that came with both traditional longboard skateboard wheels and inflatable wheels. The 3,000 watts of power this board put out make it feel like it was simply going to rip loose from the street on normal wheels, but when we swapped them out for inflatable tires that were much more forgiving, it made for a much more comfortable ride that put inflatable tires on the list of must-have features on our ideal personal electric vehicles. Safety also seems to be an issue with skateboards — perhaps as a result of the smaller diameter wheels or the hardness, but injuries on these far outweigh other modes of transport both for me personally and for the multitudes of riders voicing opinions on the web.
Electric unicycles such as the Solowheel have risen up as an unlikely competitor in this segment with their inflatable tires, long range, and impressive self-balancing technology. In our testing with numerous unsuspecting members of the public, we found the learning curve to be a bit long, resulting in a lower adoption rate than we’d otherwise expect. The new addition of brushes as training wheels was surprisingly effective in allowing beginners to get up and running on the Solowheel on the first attempt, myself included.
Without the brushes or some type of addition that allows for easier balancing, the learning curve is difficult for many to overcome. Having said that, once a rider learns how to get around on it — which only takes a few days — the experience is intuitive and feels very natural. I find myself looking for excuses to take the Solowheel out and around and still carry it around in the trunk — or frunk — of the car, just in case.
The Solowheel excels because of its compact size, which allows it to be stored in the trunk or frunk without much difficulty. Its telescoping trolley handle allows riders to wheel it around to the bus or train with very little effort (pro tip: leave the Solowheel on while trolleying it around to let it do some of the work), and can then retract back down for storage. Perhaps most importantly, the inflatable 16″ tire absorbs just about any crack, bump, rock or variance in the road, making it significantly safer than powered skateboards on traditional longboard wheels. Its 30 mile range is more than sufficient to meet the needs of just about any use case.
Electric scooters are coming into their own as well, especially when it comes to the ever-evolving sharing economy. Companies like Lime and Bird are assaulting cities around the world with fleets of dock-less, connected electric scooters in an effort to establish a new platform for shared personal electric vehicles. These low-power electric scooters have almost no learning curve, and with availability at the touch of an app, have found traction with the growing millennial population looking for alternatives to automobile ownership.
With a portable form factor, long range, lower prices and an intuitive, proven design, electric scooters are poised to play a role in the growing field of personal electric vehicles if they can improve on durability as they seek to move out of the powered toy segment and into their own as full-blown electric vehicles. The wheels on scooters are also traditionally small and hard, although companies like Ojo Scooters are building scooters that play nicely between the Razor scooter your nephew rides and freeway legal scooters that require a license, insurance, and the like. If they can strike a good balance between portability and durability while still chugging along for 20+ miles, electric scooters may become the sweet spot for personal electric vehicles.
Having summarized the pros and cons of several forms of transit, we will cut to the chase and dig into the handful of features that loosely define the ideal personal electric vehicle.
Inflatable tires are a must, because they add immeasurable safety to the ride by absorbing the vast majority of bumps, large and small. This is huge. Nobody wants to arrive at work or school after a crash, not to mention having to worry about each and every bump. Inflatable tires also add comfort through the same mechanism, which is always nice. So yeah, inflatable tires are in.
Range. This is ultimately something that is determined on a case by case basis, but generally speaking, 20 miles is a good target. 15 miles is ok, and 31 miles of range is better. Electric bikes take this to the next level with their pedal-assist function, although the implementation of pedal assists and throttles are inconsistent and really need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis for effectiveness and functionality. Most ebikes are sufficiently capable when it comes to range, but other form factors need to be able to deliver enough range to make commuting a possibility.
Compact Size. This is also hard to gauge, as personal electric vehicles come in all shapes and sizes — which is great. People come in all shapes and sizes, so finding the right fit is more of an art than a science. There is no right answer that will fit everyone, and that’s ok. Maybe more than that, it’s great. Generally speaking, the ability to take your personal electric vehicle into a car, onto a bus, or down some stairs to a train is a good thing. It’s one of my favorite things about the Solowheel and why I generally travel in my car with a set of protective gear, an electric skateboard, and a Solowheel. They are just too much fun and it’s nice to have the option to switch back and forth.
As mentioned above, there is no ‘one ring to rule them all’ solution that will magically work for everyone. These comments were intended to frame up the various categories of options that exist today, alongside their strengths and weaknesses that we encountered in the real world, in real commuting situations. The future is an exciting place, and the solutions that are being dreamed up today will define the future that we all end up in. What is perhaps more beautiful than that is that many of the solutions we are looking for already exist today. The future is now.