On the move

| October 11, 2021

Electric vehicles (EVs) are often cited as a solution to the environmental impact of the personal motor car, which can be significant. Light passenger and commercial vehicles account for 61% of transport emissions, and more than 11% of all Australian greenhouse gas emissions.

While it’s true that EVs’ impact, particularly their carbon emissions, are significantly less than their internal combustion engine equivalents, they don’t solve all of the issues of urban mobility. They, just like all cars, cause issues of congestion, require significant space for roads and parking, have a high cost, and require a licence that precludes many people due to age or disability.

During the past decades, there’s been a trend of cars getting bigger, too. A recent article in Vice was headlined, “American Cars Are Now Almost As Big As the Tanks That Won WWII”, talking to this trend. You can see this stark difference if you compare the first Mini compact car, which was released in 1959 and weighed in at 590kg, to the current Mini Cooper, which is twice as heavy, weighing up to 1240kg.

EVs have certainly continued that trend due, in part, to large and heavy battery packs, with a Tesla Model 3 weighing more than 1800kg, meaning the vast majority of the energy and effort is to move the vehicle itself, rather than the people inside it.

But while cars are growing, there’s an alternative, and it’s much, much smaller.

What is ‘micromobility’?

Micromobility is a term used to describe small vehicles, often electric-powered, and commonly includes e-bikes, electric scooters, Segways and similar devices. These small-scale vehicles are often called personal mobility devices (PMDs) in the road rules.

Electric bikes, in particular, are selling in huge numbers around the world, with the COVID pandemic accelerating their popularity as an alternative to public transport. In bike-loving Netherlands, e-bikes are now outselling traditional bikes; and even in the US, e-bikes are outselling EVs by two to one.

According to some predictions, e-bikes will outsell motor cars in Europe within the decade. In Australia, e-bike sales are up 800% in just five years.

While e-bikes are generally legal across Australia, subject to speed and motor-size limitations, the legal status and use of other PMDs, such as electric scooters, varies significantly. Electric scooters are allowed in Queensland, but speed is limited to 25kmh, while in NSWs, they’re illegal on footpaths and roads.

Things are changing, however.

In May 2021, the National Transport Commission, which works to establish consistent and model transport laws across the country, developed an approach to PMDs that was accepted by the various transport ministers, and it’s now up to each state and territory to adopt these laws. Tasmania was quick to announce that it will, with the Premier spruiking PMDs as a “cost-effective, low-pollution, congestion-busting transport alternative”.

And in Victoria, a shared scooter trial will be conducted in Melbourne and Ballarat as part of a 12-month trial.

With new laws, and changing technology, transport is going to look different in the future.

The future of micromobility

There are some mega-trends we’ll likely see with the increased adoption of micromobility, notably increasing urbanisation, including an increasing number of people living in the heart of Australia’s cities, and an increase in people living in apartments and other places that may not have car spaces.

In addition to changing laws, there have been some technological changes that are enabling new technology to develop. Batteries, particularly lithium-ion batteries, have dropped in price by almost 90%, from $1200 per kilowatt in 2010, to just $137 in 2020.

While less dramatic, this has also been accompanied by consistent improvement in energy density, allowing more energy capacity in smaller and lighter batteries, and smaller forms of transport technology to be viable.

These changes are allowing smaller vehicles – from electric skateboards, to electric cargo bikes – to develop, as well as new designs.

One such design is the Walkcar, a laptop-sized and shaped device that operates like an electric skateboard, and is small enough to fit in a tote bag.

Self-balancing technology has meant single-wheeled vehicles where the rider stands on foot rests on each side of the wheel, known as an electric unicycle, are also gaining popularity.

At the larger end, fully-enclosed pedal-assisted e-bikes, also known as electric hybrid cycles or electric velomobiles, can seem closer to cars than traditional bicycles. With costs reducing, and the ability to make these smaller vehicles without the huge overheads that automobile manufacturing requires, there’s sure to be more new designs hitting our streets soon.

As life starts to open up after the pandemic, there’s a good chance that the way we move will be different, and smaller, than before.

This article was published by Lens.