MIT Technology Review

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Two Wheels with a Tech Twist

A new scooter rental service relies on its users' smart phones to serve as both the key and the dashboard.

If you live in a major city and don't own a car, you could turn to biking, public transportation, or the occasional Zipcar rental to get around. Soon, you may be able to add another set of wheels to that list: smart-phone enhanced electric scooters.

A San Francisco-based startup called Scoot Networks wants to give people a cheap, environmentally friendly way to get around by renting out electric bikes. The scooters have a tech twist, too, since they include a plastic-covered smart-phone dock in place of a normal dashboard. Riders dock their iPhone—Android phones will eventually work as well—and the phone acts as both the scooter key and dashboard.

Scoot Networks owns about 20 scooters so far. They're popping up in San Francisco, where the company is based, and where it's conducting a closed test of its service. Scoot Networks is a little company, but founder Michael Keating envisions the company running a small army of Scoots in the U.S. and abroad.

"We really do want folks to make this a big part of how they get around town," he says. "If they do, we think they'll really like it. It'll save them time, it'll save them money, and it will make the whole city work better."

Keating hopes the service will be available late this year or early next year to people 21 and older in San Francisco.

A Scoot can go up to 30 miles per hour, enough to keep up with the flow of traffic on most city streets, and will go about 25 miles on a single charge. Since they need to be plugged in after a ride—it takes six to eight hours to recharge a Scoot—they need to be parked near regular outlets. The scooters will rent for $5 per hour, or $5 to take one at 5 p.m. and return it at 9 a.m. the next day.

When you rent a Scoot for the first time, you'll be met by a Scoot networks employee, Keating says, who will teach you the basics of using the vehicle and accompany you on your first ride.

To get started, you'll connect your smart phone (it has to be running Scoot Networks' app) to the scooter's dock. The phone will ping a server to determine if the scooter is available, then confirm that you are an approved rider. If the scooter is free to ride and you are authenticated, the server passes a code to the phone that unlocks it. For now, users have to press a virtual "start" button on the iPhone's screen to turn on the scooter.

When you're riding, the phone will show you details such as your speed and range based on the scooter's battery life. An on-screen map zooms in to show you the streets around you while you're riding, then zooms out to show you a larger map when you slow down or stop.

At first, users will need to reserve a Scoot in advance, but Keating hopes it will eventually be possible to pop your phone into a parked scooter to find out if it's available and for how long.

Since the Scoots are small and their rental period is limited to no more than two days, the company believes the service will be legal in most states. In California, which has stricter scooter- and motorcycle-related laws than many states, a Department of Motor Vehicles spokeswoman told Technology Review that Scoot Networks passes legal muster.

Regardless of its legality, some analysts are skeptical of Scoot Networks' prospects. Ratika Garg, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan, says that while the startup sounds interesting, it will mostly be useful in niche areas such as university campuses.

Jason Helfstein, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Company, says that while Scoot Networks can probably start up without losing a lot of money, it's unlikely to be a big business, in part because few people have ever ridden a scooter. "At the end of the day, if it's bicycle distance, why not just bicycle?" he says.