Meet the experts
Jack Samler: General manager UK, Ireland and France - Voi
Kevin Vincent: Director, Centre for Connected and Autonomous Automotive Research and NTDC Institute for Clean Growth and Future Mobility, Coventry University
Oliver Montague: Co-founder and CEO of Swytch Technology
Can you give us a brief explanation of your micromobility solution?
OM: The Swytch kit is a conversion kit that can make any bike electric. The kit includes a smartphone-sized battery, a motor wheel and a pedal sensor and works on almost any bicycle model. Whilst most electric bikes retail for thousands on the market, the Swytch kit starts at £499, and allows anyone to own a state-of-the-art e-bike at a fraction of the price. The same goes for e-bike rental schemes, for example the Santander Cycles e-bike scheme costs £3.30 for every thirty minutes – which can add up quickly!
JS: Voi is one of the fastest-growing mobility companies in the world. Founded in 2018, Voi is a Swedish micromobility company offering e-scooter and e-bike sharing in partnership with towns, cities and local communities.
We believe e-scooters can play a central role in changing how people move in our towns and cities as part of creating a greener future. We want to ensure that the micromobility transformation happens the right way - through real innovative technology, open and transparent dialogue with towns, cities and governments and by adapting our products to local needs. Voi’s holistic Environmental Action Plan tackles emissions and promotes renewable energy use and circularity along its supply chain.
Voi operates in over 100 towns and cities across 12 countries. It is headquartered in Stockholm and employs 1,000 people. To date, Voi boasts more than seven million riders and has served more than 150+ million rides worldwide. Voi currently operates in 14 UK towns and cities as part of the government e-scooter trials.
What are the big engineering challenges currently facing the sector?
KV: Dependent on the product and where it sits in the pantheon of micromobility products and whether it is shared or private, then there are two overarching considerations that relate to infrastructure and product development.
In terms of infrastructure, planning for the design of the 15-minute city and low traffic neighborhoods (LTNs) that will promote and enable safe, inclusive and accessible solutions will be required. Shared space will need to consider design and engineering solutions that protect all the users of this public area, with segregation from large vehicles imperative. Charging networks, that are accessible to all, will require standard development with user needs paramount.
Undocked services will need to consider solutions to the perceived nuisance value of seemingly abandoned vehicles, as well as the hazard potential for those with sight impairment using the same space. From the product perspective, there have been well documented instances of battery heating faults leading to fires, but these are quality issues and following standards correctly in approved products will minimise this concern.
More interesting challenges present themselves where security is concerned. New products will need to be tamper-proof to prevent owners boosting their power, making them unsafe and illegal. Preventing theft is also an interesting challenge. While disincentives to steal products from shared services, such as geo tagging, will help, there must be significant investment channeled into making services cyber resilient to prevent fraudulent use.
OM: Currently, the largest challenges that micromobility engineers face surround safety, infrastructure and growth. Even though most people have been taught to ride bikes and scooters, the fast growth of the industry means that governments and local authorities have yet to implement safety regulations. In addition to this, the failure of currently regulatory frameworks means that challenges facing e-scooters and e-bikes have not been addressed or explored.
JS: Shared micromobility is still a young sector. We are still evolving our vehicles to make them even more durable and sustainable and to improve safety features. As part of this, balancing the time associated with hardware development cycles with the necessity for incredibly rapid iteration, based on new learnings every day, is a challenge for micromobility operators globally.
How is UK regulation shaping up and where can it be improved?
KV: Currently, powered or power assisted micromobility vehicles fall under the term powered transporters and, as such, are regulated under the definition of motor vehicles in the Road Traffic Act 1988.
This renders them impractical for legal use on the highway and illegal for use on public footpaths for example. The Queen’s Speech (May 22) indicated that new regulation for micromobility would be introduced in the Transport Bill, but this has been delayed and won’t appear until the next session of parliament at the very earliest.
It’s unclear what will be in the bill. However, if it builds upon recommendations from Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick’s Micromobility Roadmap report (carried out with support from CENEX and over 100 stakeholders) then it could include the creation of new categories and vehicle types under the umbrella of ‘Powered Micromobility Vehicles’.
These could be very important changes and could guide the development of new standards and opportunities for UK manufacturers to increase their share of the market.
JS: We recently carried out a survey which revealed that over 80 per cent of the general public are supportive of new regulatory measures for e-scooters - and over 70 per cent want them introduced before the next General Election.
However, the trials have now been extended three times. We’re urgently calling for legislation, as part of a Transport Bill, in line with what the public want to see. Practically, this means re-categorising e-scooters into a new light zero-emission vehicle category and establishing necessary regulations off the back of that. Legislation will pave the way for the trials to end - making shared e-scooter schemes permanent and an option for more towns and cities to help hit their climate goals.
OM: Regulation around micromobility in the UK remains murky. Modes of micromobility such as e-scooters have strange laws surrounding them, whereby rental e-scooters are legal and private e-scooters are effectively illegal. There are speed limits of 15.5mph for e-bikes and e-scooters but what is needed is more widespread and accessible education around how to safely use these forms of micromoblity so we can really reap their benefits.
What will UK micromobility look like in 10 years’ time?
JS: We need to ‘think new’ to challenge car dependency in cities, and this means bringing new modes that make public transport networks more flexible.
Some potential developments that could shape the micromobility landscape over the next decade could include more sophisticated vehicles with improved battery technology, longer ranges, and better performance; new types of vehicle in addition to e-scooters and e-bikes; the development of dedicated micromobility hubs with charging stations, parking areas, and other amenities to encourage the use of micromobility for urban commuting; better integration with public transport - such as seamless ticketing and easy transfers between modes; the development of more standardized and cohesive regulations; city infrastructure adaptations; and ultimately, reduced carbon emissions and cities made for living, not cars.
Ultimately, we imagine towns and cities across the UK designed around people and nature, not cars. More pedestrian paths, more cycle paths and quieter tree-lined streets.
OM: With proper regulation, micromoblity can flourish in the UK. Cities across the country are already rolling out bike and scooter sharing schemes which have become popular – and hopefully the discussions surrounding car ownership in this country will lead more people to try out e-bikes and e-scooters for themselves.
KV: If authorities, regulators and industry get it right then there is a major opportunity to massively expand LTNs to the benefit of communities in terms of congestion and pollution reduction; increased safety through reduction in road traffic incidents involving pedestrians and other vulnerable road users and improved health outcomes through increased active mobility.
There is also potential to positively affect those with disabilities, increasing their access to mobility and helping address social and economic wellbeing, as well as mental health. Thoughtfully implemented, both shared and private micromobility can contribute to the development of the 15-minute city, but it will require significant stakeholder engagement to shape the future of the urban environment.
There must be significant effort in co-creation and a strong vision to realise what is the art of the possible. Without this there is a risk that regardless of effective standards, strong expected regulation and well-engineered safe products and services, a lack of enforcement and planning could limit the sector to only incremental improvements and poor outcomes in terms of safety.