Opinion: What can we learn about E-scooters for the future of automated vehicles?

Over the years of 2020 and 2021, you may have noticed that we (at least in the UK) are seeing a huge upsurge in the use of E-scooters on our roads – personal vehicles that can reach speeds in excess of 30mph and are (for the most part) intended for use on public roads. Some of these E-scooters are privately owned, but many are featured as a ‘mobility as a service’ package where the user hires a vehicle on a mile-by-mile basis. These vehicles attempt to improve environmental outcomes, but are the trade-offs worth the risk to our safety?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/kristoffer-trolle/48263543577/ (CC by 2.0)

As an automated vehicle researcher, it’s hard not to notice some parallels between the roll-out of publicly available E-scooters, particularly in relation to inappropriate use and the public’s understanding of the legal boundaries of these vehicles. Needless to say, it does not fill me with confidence about the future of automated vehicle transportation. Here’s a summary of my observations over the past few months.

Having used this service myself, I was concerned with the lack of clarity around where it was appropriate to use my E-scooter. I was not sure if I should be in the centre of the road (like a motorbike) or whether I could use cycle lanes. Additionally, many users ride on the pavement to feel safe and away from traffic, however this poses a tremendous risk to pedestrians, as collisions with these vehicles can often be fatal. This is also a huge safety risk to the user, as there are numerous obstacles that can be collided with in pedestrianised areas.

There are some ways of guiding behaviour to align with legal requirements (rather than just asking users to read the terms and conditions), and oftentimes it’s better to use a prevention system or an interface that guides behaviour. For example, many services shut-down when attempted to be used in communal areas such as parks – a clear enforcement of an operational boundary. Additionally, providing the user with clear visualisations on go/no-go zones, and prompt the user to stay on the road, is essential to encourage appropriate use.

Additional safety breaches to safe conduct include multiple users (only yesterday I saw three individuals riding a single E-scooter), and not using a helmet (a legal requirement for riding a bicycle). It seems to me that every e-scooter user is currently breaching one or more safety guidelines or the law when using these vehicles. There is very little data available as to how dangerous these modes of transports are in practice, however, over time we should expect to gain a clearer picture as to how this test-scheme has fared.

For the future of automated vehicles, these exact issues will become more prevalent, and perhaps these situations will be far less forgiving due to the speed and mass of the vehicles in motion. For example, drivers may be inclined to activate automated features in a place where it is not safe to do so or attempt to leave the driving seat when they may be required to take control of the vehicle at a moment’s notice. In these vehicles, much like that of E-scooters, clear legal frameworks and operational boundaries will need to be communicated to the user, and not only baked into our law system.

Let’s learn from E-scooters and pay close attention to how the public interacts with this technology. Safety centres around not only clear policymaking, but also clear communication to the public and the user. It is important to invest in education, infrastructure, and smart user-centred design to ensure that injuries and deaths are not incurred needlessly, and that these types of services are catered for and not merely added into the chaotic fray of our modern transport system.

Supporting articles:

BBC. (2021). When and where can I ride an e-scooter legally. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48106617

Express. (2021). Electric scooters: Gaps in safety knowledge could leave road users with ‘serious injuries’. https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/cars/1446324/electric-scooters-road-safety-risk-new-driving-law

Leicestershire Live. (2021). Car slams on brakes to avoid colliding with e-scooter being ridden illegally in Hinckley. https://www.leicestermercury.co.uk/news/local-news/car-slams-brakes-avoid-colliding-5492105

Yahoo! News. (2021). E-scooter rider who killed elderly cyclist after collision pleads guilty. https://sg.news.yahoo.com/escooter-rider-killed-elderly-cyclist-collision-pleads-guilty-055512109.html

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