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Electric scooter design that makes a hole lot of sense

About the author

Jon is the presenter of Science in Action on the BBC World Service. He trained as a mechanical engineer (with automotive and aeronautic design) before becoming a journalist. He has worked at the BBC for over a decade and has reported from areas as diverse as war zones and technology shows.

Scooters are a firm favourite in the developing world – but they are noisy and polluting, and can be dangerously overloaded. One company has come up with a cleaner, safer option.

In many parts of the world, the scooter is one of the most popular ways to get around. City streets are crowded with the small two-wheeled vehicles, sometimes carrying one passenger, but often carrying two or more people, their children – and their cargo. Small motorcycles can be a vital form of transport for farmers to get their produce to market, or parents to get their children to school or medical care. So, drivers and their families, pets, livestock and boxes and bags often have to balance precariously on two wheels.

More and more scooters are taking to the streets of South American cities – faster than new cars, in some cases. In many Asian cities they’re the dominant form of transport. They can be cheap to own and operate, and they can be faster than the car in congested cities. But scooters are also a source of urban pollution, in terms of both emissions and noise. Their small engines burn a combination of oil and gasoline relatively inefficiently compared to an average modern car, and routine maintenance isn’t always carried out.

They are also dangerous – even deadly. A scooter is designed for one, maybe two people. If it is loaded beyond that the centre of gravity is shifted higher and balance becomes much more difficult when weaving in and out of traffic.

Lit Motors, a small company based in San Francisco, California I profiled in my last article, believes it might have a solution. By going back to the drawing board and designing an electric scooter for carrying cargo, it has come up with a design that it says should be safer, more efficient, more useful, but no more expensive. These are big goals for a small machine.

The first thing you notice when you look at the new cargo scooter is actually an absence, or a gap, in the middle of the machine. Right in the centre, approximately where the engine would sit underneath the driver, there is a square hole which can accommodate boxes up to 50x50x50cm (20x20x20 inches). The driver sits on a saddle right at the back. The total cargo capacity is estimated to be up to 90kg (198lbs), not including the weight of the rider. 

All in the lean

A key factor in the redesign was making the scooter electrically powered. The motor is placed inside the rear wheel, says Ryan James, Lit Motors’ chief marketing officer.

“That frees up the vehicle architecture to make it whatever we want it to be, and it also greatly simplifies the drivetrain making it cheaper to produce, cheaper to sell, and cheaper to the consumer,” he says.

Rechargeable batteries run along the base of the scooter, keeping the centre of gravity low, which is key to a stable, and therefore safer, ride. The batteries hold enough charge for around 50 miles, or 80km, and top speed will be around 50mph (80kph).

The other standout part of the design is two handlebars, which seem to sprout out of the top of the bike.  

“We have a unique, tank-style steering,” James explains. There is one handlebar on either side, which instead of twisting around a central pivot, are pushed or pulled in tandem to move the front wheel. “Like any other two wheeled vehicle, when you’re moving you’re actually turning the front wheel very little. The turn is all in the lean.”

For the cargo scooter to have an impact, it will have to be cheap enough for people to afford it. So is it possible to get the price of an innovative electric bike that low?

“We think we can,” says James. “We went over to India a couple of years ago and conducted market research, met with three of the largest scooter and motorcycle manufacturers, and we were able to determine how much we could produce this for. We should be able to get this comparable with similar price-point scooters.” In reality that means a target price of around $5,000.

Early production will be determined by demand, according to the company. It says it is prepared to produce anywhere from 10 to a few hundred at its facility in San Francisco at first, and then increase the numbers. Longer term, the company may license the design to manufacturers around the world.

The cargo scooter is still very much in development stage, and I was shown an early prototype (see video). The company already has ambitious plans though. Their next goal is to make the scooter fold in half, so you end up with the two wheels much closer together, and the bike’s footprint halved.

“That will be really big in places like China, where the norm is not to leave your scooter locked down in the street, but to bring it up into your apartment with you,” says James.

Lit plans to release the machine later on this year – using a Kickstarter campaign, of course.

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