Bird works on tech solutions to complaints about how rental electric scooters are used

August 22, 2018 21:03 CET

Electric-scooter startup Bird on Wednesday said it’s exploring several new technological tools aimed at eliminating common complaints from riders and the cities where the company operates.

Bird and competitor Lime have been protesting that they did not win a municipal contract with Santa Monica, California, to run a pilot program for shared bikes and scooters. First, they responded by deactivating scooters last week for a day, and then they urged scooter fans to protest outside City Hall.

Now Bird — which operates in more than two dozen U.S. metropolitan areas, plus Paris and Tel Aviv — is taking the battle with its hometown a step further, releasing a 134-page report explaining its efforts to limit the abuses that have made scooters a hot-button political issue.

The growth of scooter rental companies has confounded cities such as Santa Monica, where scooters have shown up practically overnight, en masse. Santa Monica filed a criminal complaint against Bird late last year, and earlier this year passed a law saying the scooters could be impounded.

Bird said there may be some tech answers to address complaints from Santa Monica officials.

To deal with rogue riders, the Bird app could add a “citizen mode,” which would allow users to photograph and report unacceptable rider behavior. Three complaints would result in a ban from the service.

Bird is working to stop users from dumping scooters throughout the city, and said it could expand the use of the geofencing, which currently stops riders from going into prohibited areas. That geofence could be extended to alert riders to use designated parking spaces, which Bird is working with the city to establish.

Scooters will also be equipped with a tip-over sensor to alert the company to a scooter that may be taking up unnecessary curb or parking area space, and a lock would secure scooters to one of the new designated parking zones.

But the company is still trying to figure out how to get people to stop riding on the sidewalk, which Bird calls an “extremely difficult issue.”

“Given the current limitations of GPS to pinpoint locations of individual riders within a few feet, we are developing other complex technological solutions that would enable us to identify when Birds are ridden on sidewalks,” the company report states. These might include monitoring speed and brake telematics, establishing beacons or sensors around the city, floorboard cameras, sensors to measure the passage of scooters over sidewalk contraction joints, and even cameras that apply machine learning to determine the difference between pedestrians and other objects surrounding the scooter.

Bird is also using nontechnological tools to win over Santa Monica city officials. A public service campaign, free helmet giveaway and outreach to local community and parent-teacher associations to reduce underage riding will also continue.

Bird scooters, which the company presents as a “last mile” compliment to public transit, cost $1, plus 10 to 15 cents per minute of use, and users can leave them anywhere they want after they’re done. Currently, scooter companies in Santa Monica pay $50 for a business permit and $60 for impounded scooters. Under the pilot program, Santa Monica wants companies to pay $20,000 annually and $130 for each scooter.

You can reach Edward Niedermeyer at eniedermeyer@crain.com.

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