The year was 2008, long before the world’s cities were filled with electric scooters and bicycles. Assaf Biderman and his colleagues at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology research lab had been working on the knotty problem of how to feed the world’s cities’ insatiable appetite for more and more transportation options without causing them to choke on ever-growing numbers of cars and buses.
“The most conservative scenario showed that demand for transportation in cities will triple by 2050,” he explains in a Zoom interview. “Transportation growth hasn’t stopped since 1984. The graph of kilometers traveled per person is simply exploding. … If we look at the history of cities that are 6,000 years old, from Turkey to Italy, we see now that we are experiencing the fastest growth in human urbanization.”
The solution was a familiar mix of shared vehicles, buses and trams. But there was one major missing element: the two ends of the journey. How does someone get from home to the closest subway station, or from the bus stop to the office?
After one false start and many, many years of research and development, Biderman’s solution became a reality in an electric scooter.
In an era when urban areas are filled with them, that hardly sounds revolutionary. But think again. The startup that Biderman founded to solve the problem he and his colleagues identified may not just mark a breakthrough improvement in scooter technology. It has arrived right at the moment when the coronavirus has given a new lease on life to micro-transportation.
Born in Israel, Biderman was a physics student and founding member of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, which investigates how digital technologies impact urban life, when he began thinking about the transportation challenges cities would face in the coming decades.
“In 90% of the world’s cities, traffic jams occur twice a day, and there are cities that are jammed the whole day,” he says. “Small cities are also affected. So what do we do – flying cars? … The street is a limited resource.”
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“It’s not just a question of quality of life or environmental quality, but also an issue of the economy,” he says. “Transportation is the lifeline of a city, and most of the GDP in the world comes from cities, around 83%. If you don’t solve the transportation problem, you’re harming the world’s GDP. Eighty percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions come from cities or infrastructure that supports cities, 75% of energy consumption is in cities and so on. This is a question that will influence our future as humanity, for better or worse. I have devoted 12 years in academia to the issue.”
One of the ideas he considered and rejected was ridesharing – like the Bubble Dan vans in Tel Aviv – but with the added benefit of driverless vehicles. “We thought about this as part of a challenge,” he says. “How do you make as many people as possible take advantage of the limited resource of the street? One idea that came up was using ridesharing and self-driving taxis to improve the average number of people in cars, which in the United States is now 1.16 people.”
“We thought if we put four people in cabs at all times, we would be able to significantly improve the utilization of the street and reduce the strain. But then we looked at the real data on the movement of people in 435 cities and concluded that it wouldn’t matter what we do. It would be hard to get above an average of two people per trip. The only case where it can work is in a city with a complete mix of uses – residential, offices and restaurants in the same area. But in most cities, there isn’t a mix like that.”
So it was back to a reliance on public transportation. But there was a problem, here, too.
“We took people’s actual travel patterns. We saw where they were coming from and where they were going and we overlaid it on the public transportation network,” Biderman recounts. “It created a network where you could see the ‘leftovers’ [the gaps] between existing transportation and actual movement, and it’s clear that the greater the leftovers – if a person lives 10 kilometers [6.2 miles] from the closest public transportation – the chance that he would buy a car and take the entire trip with a passenger car increases.”
“It’s a huge problem that creates traffic jams in the city and on the way to the city,” he notes. “We asked ourselves how to bridge the gaps to get more people to use public transportation. Then we built clusters of the most common categories of these ‘leftovers’ and arrived at the three most common distances: 1 to 3 kilometers, 2 to 7 kilometers and 3 to 10 kilometers. It was rather clear from these figures what means of transportation would address them: electric scooters, electric bicycles and electric mopeds.”
Biderman came to this realization in 2008, long before electric scooters inundated the streets of major cities around the world.
Perhaps for that reason, the first solution that the folks at MIT came up with wasn’t terribly successful. They invented a disk-shaped motor that fit on the back wheel of a regular bicycle, making it electric. They thought that would make electric bicycles cheaper and more accessible, but Copenhagen Wheel, as it was called because it was developed in partnership with the Danish city, was too expensive.
Still, the Copenhagen Wheel was licensed seven years ago to a startup Biderman headed called Superpedestrian. The motor sells for $1,500 – less than an electric bike, but not cheap enough to make it a popular alternative. “It was a mistake,” Biderman acknowledges. “People want a complete solution.”
But Biderman didn’t give up. He brought together robotics experts who specialize in autonomous maintenance from Uber, Amazon’s robotics subsidiary Kiva, the electric scooter startups Bird and Jump, and Segway.
After years in stealth mode, Superpedestrian debuted its Link shared electric scooter service in June. The service was launched in four U.S. cities and the company is bidding for contracts in several cities in Europe.
As it turns out, the timing for such a “micromobility” solution was perfect. “In the era of the coronavirus, they view such transportation as a solution. Britain, for example, has increased the number of licenses for scooters. Cities such as Liverpool and Birmingham have introduced an accelerated bidding process for shared transportation, while Rome increased its scooter quota and has also signed on. “It’s a wild race,” says Biderman.
Link is running up against well-financed multinational giants. Lime has so far raised $935 million from investors and Bird has raised $623 million. Superpedestrian has raised less than $80 million.
Biderman is counting on the fact that Superpedestrian is the only one that not only operates the service but also developed its own technology. “At other companies, they don’t engineer the device themselves. Instead, it’s supplied to them,” he says.
“We planned everything on the scooter. From a mechanical standpoint, we did it in a massive way so that it can withstand a one-ton vertical load, for example. No rider weighs a ton, but if a rider who weighs 90 kilograms [198 pounds] rides over a pothole, for a moment there’s a major load on the device. We built a handlebar that can withstand 600 kilos, and so forth. In the workshop, we have 70 kinds of tests that we subject the scooter to in various ways, such as conditions of extreme heat and electric shocks, and anything you can imagine.”
Micro-vehicles also have a control and monitoring system, but the sensors usually employed for this task make them more expensive, and they are prone to failure, says Biderman. Superpedestrian came up with a different solution by writing the software program for the device.
“You can compare the command given and the action taken, and in the process predict in advance if there’s going to be a technical problem and with which component,” he explains. “The Link [scooter] knows to ask itself if it’s safe enough for the rider. It knows if it’s going to fail during the trip. It knows when to take itself out of service and to open a service request to us – all automatically.”
And that could be the secret to Link’s success. Its competitors lose between $1 and $4 a ride, which Biderman attributes to the device itself. “Their scooters break down after between 250 and 400 trips. If the business is to break even, it needs to get up to about 700 trips. So if you are running a shared service, you won’t get a return on investment before it’s taken out of service – unless you have a large team of people and spare parts to maintain the fleet. But one way or another, it doesn’t work out financially,” he says. “The Link can go 2,500 trips before maintenance.”
Link’s proprietary software gives it other advantages. “If a regular scooter goes up a 4% incline or greater eight times, it stops working. The internal components heat up and create irreversible damage. The Link knows how to manage itself better,” says Biderman. “The Link requires charging every five days compared to two days in the industry. All of that reduces costs by 70% and makes our operations profitable from the beginning.”
Electric scooters may fill a critical transportation gap, but they are also a source of controversy in the very cities where they have become so popular, Tel Aviv included. Opponents cite two major problems.
The first is safety. Most scooter accidents aren’t fatal, but head and limb injuries are very common. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reported 600 electric scooter injuries last year, up 150% from 2018, and that only included accidents reported to the police. In many cases, the injured person goes to the hospital without filing a police report.
The second major complaint is that the scooters themselves have become an eyesore. Because they can be rented anywhere and left anywhere, with no need to return to a designated bike stand, sidewalks have become littered with scooters.
Biderman asserts that the Link scooters are safer in one important way. Superpedestrian loads maps onto the scooter rather than relying on mobile communication to know its exact location. “Where there’s a problem with reception, you can continue riding for 30 seconds in a prohibited area and sometimes every longer. By the time the device connects with the network, [the rider] has already crossed the park,” he says. “We provide the cities 99% enforcement capabilities with regard to lanes, areas that are off limits to ride in and parking points, because everything is also off-line.”
So far, Superpedestrian has put 7,000 of its scooters to the streets and is manufacturing 187 more a day. Its costs are similar to other commercial scooters on the market, at about $500 per device. Multiplied by thousands of scooters, that’s a major upfront investment for a small startup, so Superpedestrian found a different financing model: Its lender purchases the scooters and is repaid by Superpedestrian in installments plus interest.
Born and raised in the Tel Aviv area, Biderman may have cultivated his interest in transportation while taking buses back and forth between the homes of his divorced parents in Tel Aviv and the suburb of Ramat Hasharon.
He did his army service in the Education Corps as a sound man for army performance troupes, far from the classic military service of the Israeli entrepreneur. In 2001, he went to MIT to study physics. “The students coming to MIT thought it was hell, but I was older than they were when I came, and I just wanted to drink in knowledge.
In 2003, he was a founder of Senseable City, which today counts 60 researchers and enjoys funding from cities and corporations.
It sounds like you had a comfortable life in academia. Why did you leave it for a startup?
“I knew that I wasn’t interested in an academic career and tenure. I was interested in growth and doing things with an impact. In the end, when you boil it down, the role of academia is to create knowledge and advance knowledge, but when you look at the world, it’s not happening. That gave me the drive to make something happen. I wanted to learn about this disparity between what’s right to do, based on the data, and what really can be done, which in the end is what has an impact on the world. For that you need to be committed.”
Among Superpedestrian’s lead investors is Spark Capital, a U.S. venture capital fund that has invested in Twitter and has significant Israeli holdings. Other investors include General Catalyst, Edison Partners and the Israeli funds Hanaco Ventures and OurCrowd. It employs about 80 full-time employees, three quarters of whom are in the Boston area, with the rest scattered around the United States. It has another 200 part-time workers.
How did you choose the name Superpedestrian?
“We thought that the city that we’re familiar with in a lot of respects has been built around the automobile, but it wasn’t always like that. Originally, cities were built around pedestrians. So we said, instead of relating to the scooter as a little car, we would relate to it as lean, economical transportation, which is a superpedestrian.”
And what about entering the Israeli market, for example a city like Tel Aviv?
“Soon. I want to be in Israel. It’s a special market, both because people there have embraced two-wheel transportation to a significant extent and there’s demand, and because Tel Aviv has many challenges related to integration with public transportation, serious problems with existing services and people who are hurt in accidents. Huge improvements are possible.”