Recently I had the opportunity to be one of the judges for a global electric micromobility design competition. The process was interesting, with some very well thought through designs and some very odd submissions. The competition was sponsored and organized by Envo Drive Systems, a BC-based electric micromobility manufacturer and distributor. Its lineup includes small work and pleasure electric vehicles for roads, trails, snow, and water.
And now the winners have been announced: congratulations to Alan, Symon, Chen, and Ondrej!
This is the first time I’d been asked to be a design competition judge, so the process was interesting. 382 designs from 34 countries around the world were entered, but thankfully the Envo folks trimmed it down to 46 for my fellow judges and I to score.
Those judges were an interesting group, by the way. Asbjoerk.S Mogensen is an award-winning e-bike and e-vehicle designer. Jerry Kroll is CEO of three-wheeled electric car company Electra Meccanica, among other endeavors. Miles Keller is an award-winning industrial designer and part of Ontario College of Art and Design’s faculty. Rounding out the list was Ali Kazemkhani, founder and CEO of Envo, and a mechanical engineer obsessed with all of the niches that electric micromobility will dominate, from fun to deep utility. The diversity of the group’s perspectives were clear from the significant variance in opinions on the top 15 scored designs that we discussed online.
My perspective is shaped by a few things. I’ve owned or ridden a lot of tiny electric vehicles, from unicycles to skateboards to scooters to bikes to a motorcycle. I’ve used them for commuting, food pickup runs, errands and just for the feeling of the breeze in my hair and wheels carving on pavement. I’ve been paying attention to this space for a long time, with a 2016 article laying out what I suspected would be the dominant players in the non-bicycle entrants, and a 2018 series of articles on electric bike market size, design attractor points, health benefits and risks, what markets they would disrupt and why, and the like. I even keynoted a European electric bike conference in 2020. But long before that, I did a bunch of 3D product modeling and design as a hobby, and even built a few things I’d designed, mostly pieces of furniture, as well as having a professional career delivering software products with user experiences informed by the received wisdom of luminaries like Donald Norman and IDEO. Far from an expert on industrial design or electric micromobility design, but informed and with sufficient experience to know my limitations in the space.
Each of the judges came with interests and perspectives of their own. Some were interested in the novel, others the aesthetics and others the technical and market viability, which is where my focus mostly lay. I liked an inflatable paddle board design with a seat and electric motor that could be added, as it struck me as a great beach play thing for kids and parents, but the other judges weren’t at all excited about that one. Two of the judges spend the majority of their day jobs in the micromobility space, while the others were more varied. One even had a reservation on an Aptera, not the only three-wheeled highway vehicle represented among the judges.
To try to get some consistency among the often very different opinions, Envo had a scoring system, mediated by an electronic form which aggregated and sorted the results across several categories: context of use, form factor, performance and constraints, technology feasibility and vision, innovative yet simple, social awareness, sustainability, and business viability. I leaned into the context of use, feasibility, and viability, personally. I’m big on people knowing who and what circumstances they are designing for, and ensuring that it makes sense.
Before getting to the winners, it’s worth mentioning a handful of the odder designs. One was a standup paddleboard kind of thing with a integrated paddle wheel, combining two slow and inefficient forms of locomotion into one vibrating mess. Another was purportedly an off-road vehicle with no ground clearance at all. Another was a pedal-assist foiling board that would have fallen over every time it turned due to the mechanics of it. Perhaps my favorite in this category was the design concept for a Jeep-brand snowmobile that had clearly been done long before the contest, had no relationship to Envo or the contest, and didn’t actually look sufficiently like anything Jeep to make the point that the designer was trying to make. There were a few turkeys among the almost 50 entries that passed Envo’s initial cull.
And now, the winners. The first one, Alan Tam’s next generation all terrain vehicle, was a simple and clean design. Low-center of gravity frame with batteries and wheels — I was amazed how many designs ignored the likelihood of tipping over — on a drive-by-wire platform, and multiple use cases for stuff on top, from a pair of seats with a lightweight rain roof to an autonomous delivery vehicle cargo box. All very viable, all cleanly designed, and well thought through. It was very easy to see it being used by parks workers, warehouse workers, and in farmers’ fields.
Next was Chen Rolburd and Symon Meshulam’s Flipo+ stroller addition. It’s basically a two-wheeled hoverboard that has an attachment to the undercarriage of strollers that allows the parent to drive the stroller around at a bit higher than walking speeds, up hills and the like, and can pivot under the stroller and out of the way for walking in congested areas. A bit more range for the stroller, a bit less human power required to get up hills. This one was somewhat contentious, but I was fascinated to find the number of pictures and videos of people using hoverboards with strollers in exactly this way, and a Canadian electrically powered stroller currently for sale. Clearly there’s a market there. I saw a couple of points that required more resolution from an engineering and user experience perspective, but it was completely viable otherwise.
Last, but not least, was a really fascinating stackable work vehicle, Ondrej Adamec’s Blatto Buggy. It’s a simple, low speed vehicle with a basic frame designed for fairly flat surfaces, from concrete to tarmac to gravel roads. Drive-by-wire again, allowing remote control, autonomous movement, and rider control. What was interesting was that in its basic form the surface was completely flat. You could flip up a driver’s seat so it could be a mini flat bed cart. You could flip open the back to create some simple, low bench seating to move 3-4 people around. You could lash pipes or lumber to the top and use it to move them around the place while walking beside it.
The design was really well thought through to shove into shipping containers and be delivered anywhere. I could easily imagine a container being delivered to a disaster relief center, a construction site, or a military camp, then the Blatto Buggies on the bottom rolling a stack of four or five buggies out of the shipping container, then unlashing them and getting them working quickly. It has an industrial aesthetic that looks a bit like IKEA designed a electric cart that worked for some judges and didn’t for others. I liked it a lot, and might have put it at the top of the list.
This was my first design competition judging experience, and I hope it won’t be my last. It was fascinating to see how designers are thinking through the challenges and opportunities that modern lightweight electric motors and batteries provided in micromobility, even when sometimes the results were duds. It was also interesting to see how widely varied the quality of submissions were, with some crude sketches that might have been aiming for low-rez authenticity, and some very nicely rendered and detailed designs. The winning designs were all two- to four-wheel ground vehicles, but there were a lot of snow and water vehicles, including a few that were in the top 15 of almost 400 entries, but not among the winning three.
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