Last-mile commuting with an e-scooter

escooter

Part 1

It started with me wanting to, in true Mustachian fashion, bike to work. Unfortunately, this isn't very practical in my daily commute, because of distance (over 30km one-way), and my use of multiple modes of public transport (bus and train). While I could try a folding bike, I wasn't completely sold on this idea due to the unwieldiness of it.

Then one day (around August 2016), I saw a kid's toy: a folding e-scooter, the Uber Scoot S300. This was affordable (R4500), however the weight of over 18kg made it seem impossibly unwieldy for carrying around a train station. Eventually, after much research and deliberation, I decided to give it go anyway.

I soon realised that I needed to modify the e-scooter to:

  • be lighter. Around 14kg is light enough to sling over my shoulder.
  • have a carry strap to enable me to sling it over my shoulder.
  • have a bag to carry it in when taking it into public transport.

Thus began my adventures in modifying the e-scooter. I added the carry strap, moved the heavy lead-acid batteries into a backpack, making the e-scooter much lighter (around 13kg) and easier to carry, and my wife made a nice bag to put the e-scooter into. I later swapped the lead acid batteries (that weigh around 5.5kg) for an RC LiPo pack (weighing about 1.1kg). I even designed and 3d-printed a rear mudguard to avoid muddy trousers!

I get a lot of attention while I scoot around to and from work! I have yet to see one other person try this form of transport here in Johannesburg, which is sad, because it is cheap and fun, and we have cycle lanes! Here are some common responses:

  • Where did you buy it? Tevo, also available at Makro
  • How far does it go? About 10km, depending on inclines.
  • How fast does it go? About 20km/h, much faster than walking! On average, a 15 minute walk becomes a 5 minute ride.
  • Does it need petrol? No, just charge it like a cellphone. It takes about 2 hours to charge. I use about 85Wh to travel a round-trip of about 6km which includes several inclines.
  • How much does it cost? Less than most smartphones! I got it for R4500
  • Shouldn't you use a bicycle instead, for the exercise? I get plenty of exercise carrying the scooter around the train station! Besides, I don't want to get sweaty and smelly on my way to work. Also, a bicycle is not as easy to carry around, even a folding one.
  • Why don't you just use your car? Because I don't like sitting in traffic, struggling for parking, paying for petrol, ruining our environment, etc. But mostly the traffic thing.
  • What if it rains? I get wet. I carry a poncho which keeps me mostly dry, and I always still have the option of using my car.

Part 2

Around July of 2017, I spotted this beauty in the window of a local nondescript gadget shop:

Well, not exactly that model: this one has an aluminium deck, and is not branded. I was concerned about the lack of suspension and the tiny wheels, but after watching many YouTube videos, I decided to buy it. And then, there were two...

A mini-review:

  • This is pretty much the lightest e-scooter you can get! It only weighs 8,2kg (according to my scale). This makes it really easy to carry around, and it even fits on the upper luggage rack on the Gautrain.
  • It looks really nice and is well built. Strong aluminium everywhere with a well-designed folding mechanism means it can take a beating!
  • It has a very useful, bright headlight.
  • It has electronic braking (e-brake), including regenerative braking! This means that as you brake, some energy goes back into charging the battery. In practise, this is a nearly useless feature, as very little energy can really be harvested this way. How much does your laptop charge if you only plug it in for 3 seconds? Exactly. Unfortunately, the e-brake is an on/off type, meaning that you need to be leaning back before you brake, else you can go flying over the handlebars! You also need to be ready to step on the rear mudguard for extra braking power.
  • The wheels are tiny and square, so it is very easy to loose grip and fall off. Infact a friend who hopped on, fell off the e-scooter merely seconds later, in front of an amused and applauding crowd! I had the e-scooter slide out from under me on a few occasions - luckily I was able to perform a running catch each time to avoid an embarrassing fall.
  • Lack of power. With only 250W, it needs plenty of assitance up any appreciable incline, even with my sub-70kg weight. Note that it has a front-wheel driven brushless hub motor.
  • Lack of battery capacity. With plenty of assistance up hills, it can barely manage about 6km range. The battery meter will also give you stress: just 1km into your ride, it will show low battery every time you apply throttle (as it's showing voltage, rather than charge remaining).
  • Poor weight balance. The deck and rear wheel is extremely light, as the batteries are in the steering column, and the brushless hub motor is on the front wheel. This means the everytime you lift the e-scooter, the deck will most likely swing around and hit your ankle in the most painful manner. Also, it's easy to tip over forwards when riding into small mounts of sand.
  • The worst part about this e-scooter: it rides worse than a skateboard due to the stiffness and lack of suspension. It helps to stand sideways on the deck with your heels off the deck, so that your calves can absorb the shocks, because if you don't, your vision will blur from all the vibration.

In short, this e-scooter is only usable on smooth, dry, tarred lanes for fairly short rides. It is quite unstable due to lack of grip, high stiffness, and tiny wheels. Still, I find that I use it when I only need to ride it in town, on the smooth cycle lanes.

Part 3

I'd pre-ordered a MudSlinger e-scooter way back in April 2017 after reading this Popular Mechanics article about it. I got in touch with the creators, who were very friendly and willing to listen to my advice regarding what an ideal e-scooter should be. Eventually, by September 2017, I got a review unit from them. And then, there were three:

I ended up paying R3800 for the final unit, which differs quite a bit from the initial mockups (for the better!). Here's a mini-review:

  • The MudSlinger e-scooter has suspension! It isn't obvious from the pictures, but the suspension has decent travel. Combined with the air-filled front wheel, it results in a smooth ride over paving and road (and even dirt trails), while reducing the amount of strain on the e-scooter.
  • Very light! While not the lightest, it weighs only 10.4kg (according to my scale) making it easy to carry on my shoulder.
  • The solid rubber rear wheel (with integrated brushless hub motor) means no punctures on the wheel with the motor. Doesn't compromise the ride quality too much due to suspension.
  • Powerful 350W motor. It can easily achieve 31km/h on flats and downhills, which is dangerously fast. Luckily there's a low gear which limits the top speed to around 22km/h, which is much safer.
  • Slick-looking, compact, and durable. The review unit I had took a beating and nothing broke. It is hard to believe that the battery is in that super-thin deck.
  • High-capacity 8800mAh battery. I haven't managed to test out the range, but it seems it will get over 10km on a charge on my usual route. I once did around 9km (lots of flat-out downhill) with charge to spare afterwards.
  • Comes with powerful headlight and tail light, including a brake light.
  • On the downside, the throttle is a big laggy, and the rear mudguard is inadequate.

I added a few modifications - a carry strap, and an extended rear mudguard to avoid muddy pants:

In short, the MudSlinger e-scooter is the one I'd recommend!

Video

Here's what my daily commute looks like:

e-Scooter commute

Sometimes, we just ride for the fun of it:

e-Scooter fun

Tips

Here are some tips if you're planning to try this mode of transport:

  • Wear sunglasses or safety glasses to protect your eyes. I use clear polycarbonate safety glasses as they are a lot cheaper and tougher than sunglasses.
  • Wear a cap with a peek which allows you to shield your eyes from glare and possibly bird droppings.
  • Carry a poncho or rain coat, and a high-visibility jacket. A poncho is light, small, and keeps you dry when it rains. The high-visibility jacket is a must when riding at night.
  • Lean back when you ride. The faster you go, the more you should lean back. Try to get your weight over the rear wheel. This will greatly assist in braking and avoid you falling over forwards when braking hard or hitting sand.
  • Avoid using sidewalks. Pedestrians aren't expecting you, and they can't hear you, so it is very likely you'll run into them, as you'll be travelling much faster than them. It is faster and safer to stay on the bicycle lanes or the shoulder lanes on the road.
  • Use the bicycle lanes as much as possible. Since they aren't currently used much, expect many pedestrians and cars to be in your way. Going the wrong way down the cycle lane can also be extremely hazardous as pedestrians aren't expecting you and generally don't look in the direction you're coming from.
  • Install a bell or something so that you can warn pedestrians as you approach them. My experience has been that something that sounds like a high-pitched squealing brake disc is far more effective (people jump out of the way) than something that sounds like an iPhone notification tone ('ding' - not effective at all).
  • The best way to safely pass oblivious pedestrians is to hop off the scooter, walk around them, then hop back on and ride when it is safe to do so. Unlike a bicycle, this is very easy to do on an e-scooter.
  • Don't "full throttle" up every incline. The e-scooter slows down up hills, and past a certain throttle position, will not go any faster. Infact, beyond that point, the speed controller heats up, wastes energy, and will possibly also cut out from overheating. You can extend your range by finding and sticking to this optimum throttle position.
  • Assist the e-scooter up steep inclines by kicking off the ground as you would on a normal kick-scooter. This means you'll go faster up hills while also extending the range of your battery.

Follow my thoughts and experiences on my twitter #escooter hashtag.