[By By Andrew J. Hawkins]
Skip, an electric scooter rental startup that operates in and around Washington, DC, said it would start disclosing details about the maintenance and repair requirements of its fleet of two-wheelers. The company’s aim is to shine a light on the environmental impact of the electric scooter boom and challenge its rivals to build better scooters that last longer than the cheap, Chinese-made models that were deployed in the early days.
Electric scooter companies like to boast about their commitment to the environment, frequently reminding riders that every two-wheeled trip they take can help reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change. But a recent study from North Carolina State University found that shared e-scooters are less environmentally friendly than bicycles, walking, and certain modes of public transportation. Riders don’t tend to see all of the emissions that are produced by the manufacturing, transportation, maintenance, and upkeep of dockless scooters.
Skip wants to change that. Starting April 2020, the company says it will begin publishing a quarterly report detailing its consumption of spare parts. In doing so, Skip says it hopes to get other operators talking openly about sustainability, environmental impact, and consumption.
“Our industry talks about improving sustainability, but operators are not required to report the environmental impact of all parts consumption, disposal, and recycling,” the company says in a blog post, including links to its rivals’ statements. “It’s easier not to get into the details.”
The original scooters deployed by companies like Skip, Bird, and Lime — mostly sourced from Chinese companies like Xiaomi and Segway-Ninebot — weren’t built for shared use, so they were prone to breakdowns, often within weeks of being rolled out. As they struggle to keep afloat, the startups are scrambling to build a better scooter that can withstand heavy use. Bird and Lime each rolled out new vehicles they claim can last months in the field.
When Skip first launched in late 2018, the company purchased thousands of Ninebot ES4 scooters that were cheap (they retail for under $800) and readily available. But the ES4 was intended for personal ownership, indoor storage, and occasional use, not the rigors and high-maintenance needs of shared outdoor fleets, Skip acknowledges.
The trade-off, of course, was that Skip was now the owner of a fleet of scooters that required a lot of upkeep and repairs to stay in service.
From September through November 2019, we averaged 627 Ninebot ES4s deployed in Washington DC, and each scooter was used 3.13 times for a total average of 1,962 trips a day. To keep these scooters running safely our operations team performed regular quality checks and replaced an average of 51 parts every day.
This is the equivalent of 26,000 parts replaced per 1 [million] trips.
Skip rolled out a more rugged, “purpose-built” scooter — the S3 — in April 2019. Its modular design allows for easy repairs as well as reductions of wasted parts. “We end up throwing away less of the vehicle when something is damaged by wear and tear, or vandalized,” the company’s CEO, Sanjay Dastoor, told The Verge at the time. “So the vehicle can last much longer.”
Now, instead of consuming 26,000 parts per 1 million trips, Skip says it only consumed 4,786 parts per 1 million trips in its first two months of testing, thanks to the S3’s improved build. During those two months, the company says it disposed of or recycled 88 total parts. That translates to a 5X improvement over the Ninebot ES4. Skip says with more modifications and improvements, it anticipates that its fleet of S3 scooters will only require 1,541 parts per 1 million trips.
“It’s still early, and we can’t yet extrapolate the long term impact of 4,786 spare parts per 1M trips. Some parts will require replacement due to wear and tear as the fleet ages,” the company says. “But thus far, all parts failures have been caused by vandalism or as the result of premature material failures.”
It’s been a rough winter for the e-scooter industry, Skip included. Major operators like Lime, Bird, Uber, and Lyft have laid off workers and pulled out of markets as they become laser-focused on making their business profitable. Even the rollout of tougher, longer-lasting scooters hasn’t stopped any of the companies from bringing in less than money than they’re spending.
Cities have also put pressure on the companies through their permitting process. Skip recently found itself left out of San Francisco’s permit program, despite being part of the city’s original pilot. The company wasn’t granted a permit and was forced to cease operations in the highly coveted market. Skip also pulled out of Austin and San Diego and is now focused exclusively on Washington, DC and surrounding towns like Alexandria and Arlington.
Will the scooter companies follow Skip’s lead in being more transparent about the cots of doing business? It’s unclear, but it seems likely that even if they’re unwilling to do so voluntarily, they may end up having to disclose this data at the direction of the cities that hold sway over their permits. If that happens, Skip could end up looking ahead of the pack.