The Malta Independent 5 March 2024, Tuesday
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E-scooters, was there another way?

Sunday, 3 December 2023, 08:36 Last update: about 4 months ago

Marcel Mizzi

The Maltese public has rightly been complaining vociferously about e-scooters since they were introduced. Complaints are mostly about haphazard parking, irresponsible riding on walkways and on the roads and tandem riding, amongst other things. The aim of this ar­ticle is to show that most, if not all of these issues could have been solved using technology. The technology to do this already exists today and a lot is being invested worldwide to create new innova­tions mostly aimed at enhancing pedestrian and rider safety.

To begin with, those of you who have never tried riding a rental e-scooter should, at the very least, know how they work. You begin by downloading the appropriate App on your mobile phone. Each brand has its own App and a regular rider is likely to have several Apps of different brands. Riders are first required to key in their personal and credit card details to create an account.

There is no cash op­tion so a credit card is required. When the user needs a ride, he looks for an e-scooter that is closest to their current locati­on on the App’s map. Once an e-scooter is selected, the app will block it so nobody can rent it while the user is walking towards it. The inbuilt map helps the user navigate to where the e-scooter is located. On arrival near the e-scooter, the rider then needs to scan the QR code on the e-scooter with their phone camera. At that point the user account starts being debited and the e-scooter switches itself on.

When the ride is completed, the rider simply terminates the ride by clicking a button in the same App and at that point the rider stops being charged. This technology relies on GPS (Global Posi­oning System) to con­tinuously locate each asset and the same technology can be used to control e-scooters in a myriad of ways as explained below.

Tackling irresponsible parking

E-scooters are often parked irresponsibly, some­times blocking footpaths, garages and narrow streets and naturally this has led to a loud public outcry. Government opted for human enforcement through inspecti­ons and fines which was the most obvious opti­on but which did little to solve the problem. Using technology, things could have been done differently and with a much higher chance of success. Government’s efforts should have been directed at the providers, insisti­ng that they solve this issue using the best technology available.

E-scooters can easily be forced to park in a designated spot just by using the technology that e-scooters are already equipped with. In the same way that the user looks for a vacant e-scooter, they will look for a designated parking place before ending their ride.

The rider will conti­nue to be charged unti­l the e-scooter is parked in a designated spot. Furthermore, designated parking spots can easily be moved virtually by the system administrators, which will be useful when there is a public event in the area such as a Festa. Although rare in Malta, in some areas e-scooter GPS might not have a strong enough GPS signal which could cause issues with accuracy and frustrate riders. The accuracy and reliability of this system has been studied and in 2022, the Bird company launched improved technology that enables it to geo-localize parked e-scooters with pinpoint accuracy by using Google 3D scanning, augmented reality (AR) technology and Google Maps Street View data.

Controlling where e-scooters can ride

According to Maltese law, e-scooters can be driven on promenades, bike lanes, pedestrian zones and pavements, with a maximum velocity of 10km/hr.

On roads, they can be driven at a speed of up to 20km/hr. but not against the direc­tion of traffic. Speed control can easily be achieved through the existi­ng technology and this could include different limits for different areas. If Government had made this automated control a mandatory prerequisite, there would never be e-scooters riding at 25Km/Hr on the Sliema Promenade, for example. The e-scooter legal noti­ce clearly states that just like bicycles, e-scooters cannot be ridden in Arterial Roads, Underpasses and Tunnels.

This can all be enforced using technology without the need of human interven­tion. As an example, a provider can easily designate B’Kara bypass as a no-go zone and in effect this would mean that if an e-scooter attempts to use that road, the device will automati­cally be disabled and stop. In countries where there is a proper cycling infrastructure, the same system is being used to ensure that e-scooters stay off pavements. The same system can easily be applied to direct and instruct riders to use alterna­tive routes.

Typically, tourists are in Malta for a few days and they will be clueless of which roads to take and will welcome any kind of guidance.

Preventing Tandem Riding (2 people on an e-scooter)

Tandem riding is another issue that irks the public and has been reported often. This prac­tice is clearly not safe and both the provider Terms and Condi­tions as well as Maltese Law explicitly prohibit it. Here again, technology can save the day. In December 2021, Bolt filed a patent for technology that will enable an e-scooter to sense if there are two riders instead of one. The system is based on the e-scooter’s in-built accelerometer, which was initi­ally developed to measure the e-scooter’s accelera­tion rate. Bolt’s engineers are using the same hardware to detect sudden changes in mass, which is a clear sign that there is more than one person on the e-scooter. In this case, the user receives a push noti­ficati­on on his app and the e-scooter could potenti­ally be disabled automa­tically.

Riding under the influence

Another issue with e-scooters is that, just like cars, they can be ridden by people under the influence of alcohol or drugs. As they are mostly used by young people, the chances are that this happens o2en increasing the risks for other road users. Bolt have patented a cogni­tive reac­tion test as an in-app feature that aims to evaluate if a rider is fit to ride an e-scooter. As part of the test, riders are requested to react to several on-screen instruc­tions, before being allowed to start a ride. This feature has already been rolled out in various European ci­ties so here again, we just needed to insist that the providers offer this feature in Malta. After all, it is just a change in the App software.

Using a mobile phone while riding

The e-scooter legal no­tice in Malta specifies that riders are not allowed to use mobile phones while riding. The reasons behind this are obviously safety related. On the other hand, e-scooters are mostly ridden by foreigners who are likely to need to use their mobile for naviga­tion with the little knowledge of the area they would have in the short ­me they are in Malta. Many rental e-scooters do not include a mobile phone holder which means that riders will have to stop and get off the e-scooter to use the navigati­on map. This can cause more safety issues with riders stopping in busy areas to look at their phone.

Here again, Government could have insisted with the providers that phone holders are required to operate in Malta.

The future

A lot of research is currently being conducted worldwide to enhance safety in mobility covering Micro Mobility, e-Bikes, Cars, Public Transport and Commercial vehicles. The race is on to create a system that uses GPS, Google Maps Data, AI and other technologies to make road assets aware of each other. These systems assist riders and drivers when approaching intersec­tions and turns, have backward collision warning, alerts about slow moving vehicles, assist in lane changing and alert users about reversed blind spots. In July this year Transport for London (TfL) and Google Maps have teamed up to enhance cycling navigation and increase safety on the roads. As part of this new synergy Google will update its algorithms to assist cyclists and e-scooter riders in choosing safer and quieter roads and make them more accessible within Google Maps while using AI (Arti­ficial Intelligence) to factor in traffic condi­tions and any cycling infrastructure available. Being part of these ini­tia­tives will put us in a better posi­tion to demand these features from providers operati­ng in Malta. Admittedly, uptake of these new soluti­ons will have to be through the manufacturers as well as the providers and will take ­me. On the other hand, many modern cars are already equipped with state-of-the-art technology such as lane changing controls and adapti­ve head lights.

The idea is that through technology, all road assets will be aware of each other and through the use of AI and IoT (Internet of Things), drivers can be alerted and collisions and accidents can be substanti­ally reduced. Several companies are working together to develop a “Pedestrian Defense” system which precisely detects a vehicle’s posi­tion where GPS coverage is weak. The system detects a wide range of unsafe riding behaviour such as riding in prohibited areas, stunt riding, aggressive swerving and “salmoning” against traffic. It can intervene automa­tically to slow or stop an e-scooter in real ­me when unsafe behaviour is detected.

Research into self-parking e-scooters is also under way, although s­ll in its infancy. E-scooters are the Black and White Television of Micro Mobility. The future is bright and exciti­ng. Autonomous vehicles (driverless vehicles) are being prototyped and tested in various countries. Some have even rolled out as pilot projects and are achieving good results. Most of these technologies require a segregated lane. As a first step we should at least ensure that such a lane is included in every new or refurbished road. We have to stop thinking of segregated lanes as bicycle lanes and instead look at them as a space for alternati­ve transportati­on of which we will be seeing a lot in the future.

Marcel Mizzi Senior Officer – Malta Chamber of SMEs

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