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New Directions: Small Vehicle Strategies And Urban Mobility Solutions—Where Are We Headed?
Published: Author: Category: Market Insights

Over the past year or so I have been writing about small, electric vehicle developments and how they are directly tied to the evolution of transportation systems—that evolution, in turn, driven by concerns of urban congestion and hydrocarbon-based pollution.

What is clear at this point is that small, electric vehicle developments in the United States and in Europe have taken different paths:

  • In Europe, the emphasis has been on complete vehicle designs—in other words, designing a full vehicular system, from body and frame to powertrain.
  • In the United States and Canada, the process of change has been incremental—essentially upgrading PTVs with permanent magnet motors and lithium batteries.

The reality is, however, that there are major opportunities for urban mobility products in both markets.  I make the case that the major golf car manufacturers require a new vision to address these opportunities

Uniti—Example of a European Startup

The Uniti One, developed in Sweden, is in prototype stage at this point, with the company hoping to ramp up its production model by mid-2019.  The vehicle is, of course, electric powered, and will meet European standards for on-road operation.  Specifications are as follows:

 

  Range:

  • Up to 300km range (22kWh battery)
  • Swappable auxiliary battery to charge in any normal power outlet – enough capacity to drive 30 km

Charging

  • Home fast charging (AC) 3hrs 10mins = full charge (300km range)
  • DC charging 200km range in 30mins
  • Induction charging
  • Solar panel roof for trickle-charging

Driving characteristics

  • 0-80kmph in 3.5 seconds in sports mode
  • Top speed up to 130kmph
  • Suitable for both city and highway driving
  • Electronic steering
  • Rated 5 stars for safety by NCAP (New Car  Assessment Programme—See http://www.globalncap.org/about/

Uniti came into being in 2016, the result of crowdfunding.  (That’s right, crowdfunding.  Talk about entrepreneurship!)  The company’s founder were looking for the equivalent of about $800,000 to move forward, and in a twenty-four hour period the venture was over-prescribed to the tune of $1.4 million.  Since 2016, the Uniti team has been refining its performance characteristics and preparing for large scale production.

Sally Povolotsky was recently hired as Uniti’s Vehicle Development Director.  If you would like to hear from her directly with respect to her vision for Uniti, go here.

But, just to give you a flavor of where Ms. Povolotsky sees the company headed, here are some quotes from the interview referenced above:  “Virtual reality allows you to challenge the perceptions of space…” and, “Space is restricted by packaging.”

Of course, these pronouncements are taken out of context of the longer interview—and given such, it is admittedly difficult to connect the dots from the quite abstract to the product itself—but it may give you an idea of the brave new world into which the company is venturing.

The world of urban mobility:  modes of getting from point A to point B

The brave new world is systems of urban mobility.  And this world is sprouting new methods of travel almost daily.  Aside from long-established public transportation, these methods include:

  • Bicycles (electric assist)
  • Scooters (electric)
  • Ride hailing/drive share
  • Small vehicle transport (such as the Uniti)

None of the devices are privately-owned by individuals, but operate as fleets with various “anchorages” or “docks” for pickup and storage.  While European urban complexes are well-advanced in these devices and systems, some U.S. cities are moving quickly in this direction, such as Indianapolis, New York, San Francisco, and Atlanta. 

Uber, of ride-hailing fame, recently announced a partnership with Lime, a U.S.-based company, sourcing from China, which operates urban-based fleets of electric-assist scooters.  The Lime scooter option will appear on the Uber app in selected locations, and has the intriguing aspect of being “dockless”, meaning users can pick up and drop off their scooters anywhere (and, of course, the app tracks where they are located).  It costs $1 to unlock the scooter and $0.15 a mile to ride.  The distance between midtown Manhattan to Wall Street is about 5 miles (maybe less), so that would cost less than $2.  Compare that to a taxi ride of $12-$18.

And don’t let the skinny framed image above give you the wrong impression.  No, Lime was founded just 18 months ago, but has already raised $467 million, according to Bloomberg, and the latest funding round valued the company at $1.1 billion. Led by Alphabet's GV venture-capital arm, the new funding round will provide the cash to buy more electric scooters from Lime's Chinese suppliers.

Where is the opportunity for traditional golf car manufacturers and urban mobility startups?

The urban-suburban mix in the United States presents challenges for urban mobility.  A large population of commuters is still active around most major U.S. cities.  Thus, the continued emphasis on conventional vehicles, whether or not electrified.  Yet demographic studies have shown that younger generations are moving back to the city, which provide a nexus of new technologies and growing high-paying job opportunities.  Moreover, major cities are well into the process of converting their seemingly endemic congestion into clean energy transportation zones, where vehicles of the sort mention can operate (and are, in fact, operating).

Urban mobility startups don’t need a lot of encouragement.  They have the vision and the enthusiasm, and have demonstrated the ability to attract the attention of venture capital firms.  At the same time, you have the traditional golf car manufacturers headed by giant corporations, in the case of the big three, and, as far as I can see are doing little to seize the urban mobility opportunity.  And look at the assets that could be brought to bear:  Substantial capital and fund-raising power, electric drive train technology and expertise, manufacturing capability, fleet management systems, and extensive dealer networks that could both sell and provide maintenance service.

Perhaps this is what Uniti’s Sally Povolotsky was talking about, when she said, “Space is restricted by packaging…”  I think I get it, “space” means vision; “packaging” means doing things the way they have always been done.  Our package is the open air golf cart—a package that is tried and true in a low growth market—and when it comes to urban mobility solutions, totally inadequate.