What Makes Superpedestrian “Most Innovative”?
Superpedestrian is not the largest or the most recognizable micromobility company in the world. In fact, we’ve only been operating e-scooter fleets for about two years. So it took some by surprise when last week it was announced that we were among only a handful of transportation companies– and the only micromobility company– singled out by Fast Company to receive their prestigious “Most Innovative” award.
What makes us worthy?
Since folks are now asking, we thought we’d explain, in our own words, the three innovations that we think we’ve brought to the micromobility sector. (And to keep ourselves honest, we also present what we’re still working on.) But before we delve, first a little backstory about why we set out to change the micromobility sector in the first place.
Straight outta Cambridge
In 2017, we watched from our lab on Hamilton Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts as the early days of e-scooter sharing unfolded. What we saw was downright cringeworthy to our company rooted in urban planning and engineering. Scooters were literally catching on fire, and flimsy scooters with snapped-off necks littered sidewalks. Companies asking for forgiveness, not permission as they aggressively arrived in cities unannounced and often left just as abruptly.
So, we did what we do, and set out to create a smarter, stronger shared e-scooter from scratch. While other companies were using city streets as their testing ground, we were designing and redesigning, putting our prototype scooters through a litany of tests so intense the Boston Globe referred to our lab as a “torture chamber” for scooters. What we built looked like a scooter, but nothing like the scooters in cities at the time that could easily pass for toys. Add to that the onboard technology we’d spent eight years developing (we call it Vehicle Intelligence), and we were confident we had a shared vehicle that was truly fit for cities.
Feeling triumphant, we introduced our new scooter, which we called LINK, in a handful of US cities. But, rolling out in early 2020 soon felt less like a triumph and more like a jinx as cities entered COVID lockdowns. Leaders were not focused on micromobility, but on keeping people at home and healthy. It appeared that our big debut would fall flat.
Yet we pressed on, encouraged by what we were hearing from our new city partners: the scooter was a hit. It was, they said, clearly more stable, more safe and without the problems they saw on other models. Later that year, in September, we touched down in Europe. While other operators scaled back and laid off massive amounts of their staff in the face of COVID, we never stopped service, rolled out in new cities each month, and staffed up.
Now, two years later, we operate fleets in 60 cities, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Madrid and Stockholm. Yes, we have grown our business and attracted top investors like Citi and Sony. But even more than this, we have succeeded in setting a good example for the industry: proving the value of sustainable scooters over disposable ones; the value of full-time employment over gig labor; and the simple act of asking cities for permission first instead of begging for forgiveness later.
As we reflect on our two-year anniversary of operating shared fleets, we’ve done more than just set a good example; we have played a key role in fundamentally transforming how the industry, cities, and the transportation engineering and urban planning professions define best-practice micromobility.
1. Safety over domination
Prior to 2020, shared micromobility operators prioritized hyper growth above all else, routinely boasting about their intent to “dominate” urban transportation and “own all trips under five miles.” Then, we started proving the value of a different approach. As we arrived in city after city, we let our safety technology speak for itself at a number of in-person and virtual demonstrations.
After we beat several major incumbents to win a few highly coveted operating permits (including a big one in Seattle, Washington) leading operators began to change the description of their values, vehicles and product offerings in their public communications and permit applications to cities. Suddenly, safety was king.
Companies began talking more about reliable sidewalk geofencing, robust mechanical design, and safety monitoring and maintenance. While not all operators were actually delivering on this rhetoric, our impact was clear: safety was now trumping size as the main selling point to consumers and cities alike. Fast Company and Tech Crunch articles, for example, reported on this new ‘race to the top’ on safety.
Today, after millions of safe rides and millions of safe miles, our multi-year investment in safety R&D has given us the pole position in the safety race. At the heart of our safety technology is our patented Vehicle Intelligence system that autonomously identifies, fixes and flags tiny anomalies inside the scooter long before they become safety issues.
Raising industry safety standards results in more people and more cities enjoying the benefits of scooter life. By pushing competitors to build hardware and software that reduce incidents, crashes, and irresponsible behavior, we are fostering widespread trust and acceptance of the scooter industry. That’s real innovation.
2. Safety means safety for everybody
Preventing battery fires and vehicle malfunctions are only a fraction of our responsibility as a micromobilty company operating in the public realm. That’s why we invested millions in our new Pedestrian Defense platform that is proving a new standard in micromobility safety. More than bolster GPS to detect sidewalk boundaries, Pedestrian Defense uses this information to interact, in real time, with the rider and the scooter itself to prevent pedestrian conflicts. Moreover, the system detects and corrects a wider array of unsafe riding behavior, including wrong way riding and erratic riding associated with trick riding and intoxication. It also enables precision parking.
Just as Vehicle Intelligence keeps riders safe by preventing vehicle malfunctions, Pedestrian Defense keeps riders and pedestrians safe, and in so doing has already ushered in another key shift in the micromobilty industry.
The patented technology behind Pedestrian Defense combines several sources of real-time dynamic scooter data to reveal not just where a scooter is located with a high degree of accuracy, but also how it is being ridden. Sidewalk riding, wrong-way riding, dangerous swerving, stop sign violations and other unsafe behaviors are detected, then can be immediately corrected by slowing or safely stopping the scooter, as appropriate.
Through alerts and safety ratings, riders are given specific feedback that helps them understand how to ride more safely. What’s more, cities can access aggregated safety information to track overall safety progress, and inform geofence parameters, safety investments, and policy changes.
3. Deeds, Not Words, Matter to Cities
Is city cooperation and compliance really an “innovation”? Isn’t it obvious? You would think so. But the way we have approached our partnership with cities has indeed proven revolutionary in an industry that was a short time ago synonymous with brash, bad behavior.
In two years, 10 countries and 60 cities, we’ve:
- always begun service in close partnership with our city partners
- never been asked to leave a city
- not been censured or fined for being out of compliance.
How many shared e-scooter operators can claim that? We’ve shown that we can make cities and investors happy, showing that growth and compliance are not mutually exclusive. In fact it is precisely our good standing with cities that supported our recent $125 million series C funding round, which included the likes of Citi Impact Fund, Sony Innovation Fund and Antara Capital.
Long Overdue Innovations We are Still Working On
There are many best-practice micromobility lessons that have yet to be realized. One is how to standardize Life Cycle Analysis across our nascent industry, so that we can better and more accurately calculate and benchmark carbon. We are currently working with key industry and city partners on a new standard that will help ensure veracity, transparency and evolution as we move past carbon neutrality to climate positivity, removing much more C02 than we produce in the manufacturing and operation of our vehicle fleets.
Another vital work in progress is how to close the gender gap. Across the board, cities and operators are still trying to make micromobility services more attractive to underrepresented groups, particularly women, who surveys show are more likely to demand higher levels of safety, security and reliability before they embrace shared e-scooters and bicycles. You don’t have to be a daredevil to ride one of our scooters, which is progress. But we still have a long way to go, especially as we strive to play a more meaningful role in remaking streets so that they have high-quality, protected lanes, the presence of which has been shown to boost women’s bike ridership by 40%.
We won’t be resting on our laurels
The oldest shared micromobility companies are now five years old. While we’ve only been operating in cities for two years, we have been developing and refining shared vehicle safety technologies since 2013, the year we spun out of the Senseable Cities lab within the MIT Urban Planning Department. It is primarily this foundation of city understanding and engineering know-how that has enabled our expansion, and, more importantly, our impact on a still nascent micromobilty industry. As we pause to reflect on the innovations we have achieved– and those we are still working on– we remain grateful to the cities and local partners. Onward!