The electric scooter could one day become as common a sight as the bicycle, if only there were better batteries.
By Jeffrey the Barak in Los Angeles.
Originally published in the-vu in July 2000
Revised December 2000 and again in August 2003
We live in a world where it is perfectly acceptable for a free adult to go wherever he or she wants to go, at any time that suits them. Thats a good thing! Unfortunately, more often than not, an individual will do this in a large passenger vehicle such as a car.
In the seventies, Americans drove big American cars that used gallons of fuel, just to drive a few miles. When the fuel crisis began the evolution to smaller cars, there began a latent urge to get back into the giant beasts of yore. The same people who said terrible things about the land yachts of the seventies are now driving solo to the local coffee house in giant fuel-thirsty Sport Utility Vehicles. So whats the difference Suburban Drivers? Enjoy it while you can, planet killers, because the human race is reproducing at an ever-increasing rate, and the elderly are living, and driving longer.
In the not too distant future, there will have to be restrictions on car driving in order to avoid total gridlock and air toxicity. Enter the concept of the small electric car. In the early days of automobiles, electric cars outnumbered gasoline powered cars. Sure, they were terrible, but so were the fuel cars! When battery development hit the technological wall that its still pressed against today, the internal combustion engine became the champion of the highways, the railroads, the oceans and later the skies.
General Motors, Honda, Toyota and other manufacturers have brought electric power back into focus, but the fact remains, its impossible to equal the convenience and range of the fuel car. With gasoline, you can drive hundreds of miles in one direction; refuel in three minutes, and then keep on going without delay. Electric cars go a little way, and then theyre useless until re-charged.
But where are you going? Are you going from Saint Louis to New Orleans, or are you going from the beach in Los Angeles to your apartment near the beach? Do you really need four tires, four doors, six seats, a roof, a trunk, a windshield and an engine? Or are you just trying to avoid that slow process known as walking?
You might not know it yet, but in the future you are going to be one of the millions of people in the world who rides an electric scooter on a daily basis!
Why a scooter?
If you have ever tried using a bicycle as your means of conveyance, you know what the main problem is. What do you do with it when you get to your destination. It requires parking. Making matters worse, you arrive tired and sweaty and with a sore or numb butt. Im all for exercise and fitness, but a man in a suit and tie, or a lady in make-up and hose is better off without that bicycle ride. They can always work up a sweat later at the gym. Lets maintain the separation of transportation and exercise here!
Picture this, you unfold your scooter, step on, push off once and hold the switch and steer. You say good morning to the people and dogs as you glide almost silently past them at a reasonable speed. You arrive, step off and fold it down.
Electric scooters are clean, quiet, small, light and fun. Theyre a lot of fun. Like the electric car, the range is disappointing to some, but its getting better. Oddly enough, the acceptance of electric scooters got a boost from the phenomenal success of the toy known as an in-line scooter in 1999. The original was the Razor, but there are as many knock-offs as there are bumps in the sidewalk. The main advantage of the in-line scooter is its ultra light weight and portability. You can stuff it in your shoulder bag and forget its there when you finish your ride. These vehicles are made of aluminum and the wheels are like the wheels on your in-line skates. You can steer with the handlebars and the skill required is minimal. Unlike skateboards, they are not difficult to master.
Riding any human powered scooter might seem at first glance to require a large input of energy, and compared to bicycle riding, this is true. But if you pass a pedestrian at the start of your journey, you will shortly glance back and see that pedestrian as a mere dot in the distance. That is the key to human-powered scooting, 4X walking speed and zero input on the downhill sections.
I have known about this for years. Ive ridden a human powered scooter in England, Hawaii and Los Angeles. Scooting at low speed is effortless enough to make walking seem like an exhausting chore. But electric scooting is heaven. On a hot day you dont get any hotter when you ride, because you are not using your own energy to propel yourself.
Our disabled friends sit upon a subset of electric scooters. These are basically electric wheelchairs and they cost up to $3,000. The principle is the same though; batteries, a motor, a switch or potentiometer to go, and brakes to stop. With the modern explosion of electric scooters, the variety has been astounding. Just as in the early days of cars and airplanes, individual manufacturers have launched wildly different designs, and the consumers have steered the evolution of the class with their buying choices. The undisputed winner in the electric scooter in the early days was the Zappy. A similar design is still a popular seller today in the guise of the Tomb Raider.
My first electric scooter was a blue Zappy which I rode for over one year. I loved it. Bicycles passed me and I didn’t care because I wasn’t in a hurry. I just stood there and held the switch as I silently got where I wanted to go. I went fast enough to feel the wind in my face on a windless day, and slow enough to notice every little thing on my route. At first I wore a bicycle helmet, but soon abandoned it. At 7MPH I could step off and run if I ever had to. It was safer than a bicycle. I got to my destination and plugged it in to top up the charge.
I only ran out of charge once, even though my range was less than four miles. It was always enough. However battery technology has endured one of the slowest rates of development in the industrial age. Our batteries today aren’t much more efficient than the batteries which powered the electric cars before the gasoline era!
For a long time I never saw anyone else riding an electric scooter, then actor Kevin Spacey rode a Zappy to the 2000 Academy Award Nominations, and then they began popping up all over the place.
Then in November 2000 I upgraded to a Phat Flyer. Made by Currie Technologies in California, this was a truly practical electric scooter. Based on inaccurate specifications at the time, I imagined I was going 15MPH with a range of 15 miles.
The larger wheels meant you didn’t have to scan the road ahead for every stick, stone and crack. The wide handlebars, low center of gravity and general strength of the tube frame provided a ride that felt stable, safe and completely controllable. It was wobble-fee.
I got one of the first Phat Flyers released, courtesy of Scott at EVdeals.com. Following some bicycle-style safety checks with a wrench set and a delay of 40 hours owing to work and darkness, I finally planted the yellow monster on the pavement at daybreak and pushed down my right thumb.
My first generation Phat Flyer photographed in 2000
This is what electric scooters were meant to be! Okay, so the chain drive was a little noisy in all of that silence, but believe me, all you can hear after a second or two is wind blasting against your helmet. (At these speeds, you’d better get out your old helmet again!)
Motorcycles have hydraulic brakes, as do cars, so you have to remember that the Phat Flyer has bicycle style brakes, because those stop signs loom up pretty fast. When it comes to lower speeds, this type of scooter beats the Zappy simply because it can free-wheel. Okay, it doesn’t have the minimal resistance of a Xootr kick scooter or even a Razor, but there are times when you don’t want to be blasting past everything at 10MPH and it’s nice to put your foot down and scoot now and again. As with a kick scooter, downhill gradients are a free ride on the Flyer.
Laws pertaining to electric scooters vary from city to state to country. In some places in the world you are free to do anything you like on your electric scooter. Usually however, the electric scooter rider is subject to the same laws as the bicycle rider. This means keeping off the sidewalk, dismounting on a crosswalk, and obeying the rules of the road, including stop signs. Almost every policeman in the world has no idea what is legal for an electric scooter, so most will leave you alone unless you are naked and covered in strawberry ice cream.
However, some law enforcement officials will stop you and attempt to think of ways to punish you for having so much fun. The punishments do not include ice-cream and nudity, and some e-scoot riders have wound up arguing over tickets in the courtroom. Insight and advice pertaining to such legal situations can be found on-line at the Zappy eGroup.
Its still another three days until my permit to drive my old gasoline car is active again. I only get one day every two weeks now. Telecommuting from my home office in my bedroom has made me stir crazy, so Im off to the local café for some good coffee. I smile and wave at a hundred or so fellow electric scooter riders as I glide over the cracks in the boulevard. Plugging in at the café, I remember with amusement how it used to require a seven-seater four-wheel-drive sport-utility-vehicle with air conditioning and mud tires for my ninety pound girlfriend to acquire a cappuccino from the café three blocks from her house. A young mother on skates glides by behind her self-propelled electric baby carriage. The restaurant next door receives a delivery from an electric road barge. The streets are so quiet, you would have been able to hear chirping and birdsong, if only the birds had survived the gasoline era.
Links to electric scooter related web-sites have been removed from this article because they keep changing! I suggest a Google search for the latest choices.
Truth in Advertising
EVdeals.com is just about the only scooter-dealer website that has been honest enough to conduct performance tests and publish the results. Every scooter you see for sale in the stores, or online seems to have the range and speed of an imaginary twin, but EVdeals has published the truth. The following figures are from EVdeals in August 2003.
Taking a dozen of the most widely available electric scooters, they have revealed that average speed on level asphalt is between 9.8MPH and 12.7MPH. Duration or run time, in my view the most important figure, is between 28.6 minutes and 37.5 minutes. Hardly enough for an afternoon out and about!
Maximum speed is between 13.3MPH and 22MPH, the latter being attained by a heavier class of vehicle similar to a road-going moped, and range is between 5.7 and 8.6 miles. How many of us have bought scooters and then imagined we had ridden for 15 miles because the box said we could?
True, there are other scooters out there that look like Vespas and claim to go for 35 miles, but these have not been tested in the same honest and true fashion, so buyer beware. Let’s face it, those electric cars of the early 20th century had the same battery technology that we are using a century later. Is there anything else so important in our technological world that has evolved as little as the battery in over 100 years? No wonder there are so many conspiracy theories about various oil companies suppressing battery breakthroughs.
Jeffrey the Barak is the publisher of the-vu