Mapping Micromobility in the Macro World of Mobility

By Annie Chang, Manager, Emerging Mobility, SAE International and Leila Hawa, Masters Student, McGill University

Update (27/11/19): Since this article was originally published, SAE International’s J3194™, a Taxonomy & Classification of Powered Micromobility Vehicles has been published. See here to learn more about it.

Cities in North America are long overdue for a mobility revolution. The legacy of automobile-centric city planning has left many with a limited pool of viable mobility options, the binary choice between driving personal cars if you can afford to or resorting to BMW (aka bus, metro, walk sans fancy cars). Two summers ago, “micromobility” was introduced as a new, sustainable, and convenient alternative for short-distance trips. Micromobility promises to revolutionize mobility by offering human-centric options with smaller carbon footprints that decrease our reliance on and use of personal cars. It has the potential to increase accessibility via active transportation in our cities and complements dense, mixed-use and transit-friendly planning. On a personal scale, the pure joy associated with riding micromobility vehicles (microvehicles) might have something to do with the nostalgia of afternoons spent zipping around on scooters as children. It’s no wonder that Americans made 45 million micromobility trips in 2018 alone!

The vocabulary problem

The macro entrance of micromobility has sparked some serious dialogue between the industry, policy makers, and researchers, and it doesn’t seem to be dwindling down anytime soon. A common vocabulary is fundamental for effective communication. Micromobility is not an exception. For example, the term, “scooter” has created massive confusion. Prior to the arrival of scooters, like those from Bird, Lime, and Jump, “scooter” was largely used to refer to mopeds. Now, mopeds can only be called “mopeds”? To alleviate the confusion between e-scooters and mopeds, the terms “kick scooter,” “push scooter,” and “stand-up scooter” gained traction. The scooter vocabulary landscape has been further muddied by the recent introduction of seated scooters that look more like “kick scooters” than mopeds. And, what about hybrid (kick and seated) versions? There is a pressing need to streamline the conversation by establishing a common set of vocabulary. Actually, we find the need for two sets of vocabulary. One on micromobility in the context of transportation and the other on microvehicle criteria and classification.

A micro-glossary on micromobility

One of the authors has recently proposed a micro-glossary on micromobility to remedy the questions of: What do we call this class of tiny vehicles? What do we call travelers using these tiny vehicles? Does the term “micromobility” refer to the travel mode, vehicle, class, or just shared e-scooters? In this glossary, “microvehicle” (shortened for “micromobility vehicle”) refers to the class of tiny vehicles such as e-bikes and e-scooters. “Micromobility” refers to the travel mode category that uses microvehicles. Users of microvehicles are called “micromotorists.” Shared e-scooters and e-bikes are collectively called “microvehicle sharing.”

Figure 1 A Micro-Glossary on Micromobility

The microvehicle classification conundrum

Microvehicles are in a unique spot when it comes to classifying vehicles. Although the class of microvehicles includes those that are fully motor propelled or have propulsion assistance, they are lighter, smaller in size, less powerful and thus slower than conventional motor vehicles. Essentially, microvehicles are neither fully “motorized” nor “active” in the established sense. Because of these characteristics and more, microvehicles have different operational characteristics and safety implications, and most do not fit very well within definitions that are currently included in North American regulations and classifications.

As a result, microvehicles are in this grey area between toys and motor vehicles. There is a lack of consensus on the classification and taxonomy of microvehicles. They pose a challenge to traditional vehicle classification norms, so to get a better idea of the breadth of existing microvehicles, we graphed them by weight and speed.

Figure 2 Micromobility vs. Human-Powered Mobility*

Here comes SAE J3194

In an effort to solve this communication gap, we are working with key stakeholders from industry, academia, the non-profit world, and public agencies in city governments to create, SAE J3194 – Taxonomy and Classification of Micromobility Vehicles. This recommended practice will classify and define microvehicles for all sectors to use.

In order to generate a system for classifying microvehicles, we first need to establish the criteria for microvehicles. We are looking at a series of factors including top speed, weight, and width. The definition of microvehicle could not only impact operational use, but also the future innovation of micromobility. A definition that’s too strict could stifle innovation and we wouldn’t want that.

In addition to defining the microvehicle class, we are working to create a taxonomy and classification system that organizes different types of microvehicles based on their attributes. Just from a quick Google or Twitter search for different microvehicles, the confusion and inconsistent naming that is prevalent today is apparent. We need clarity on what to call different types of microvehicles so that everyone can be on the same page. For example, should a Segway Personal Transporter be in the same category as their so called mini versions?

Standards are NOT slow and dull

Yes, standards development is notorious for being slow and tedious. Standards development is often criticized for being a roadblock to innovation. For the case of our microvehicle taxonomy work, we are happy to share that we are moving very quickly. It looks like we will have a published document in the coming months! It is fair to say that we are just at the beginning of the innovation and adoption curve of micromobility. Guiding documents such as J3194 will need continuous TLC and should be considered a living document that will pave the way for future innovation.

We’re all ears

We would love to hear from you! Please reach out to us with any questions and ideas. Contact Annie.

Update (27/11/19): Since this article was originally published, SAE International’s J3194™, a Taxonomy & Classification of Powered Micromobility Vehicles has been published. See here to learn more about it.

About the authors

Annie leads SAE International’s portfolio in micromobility and shared mobility. She is also pursuing her doctorate degree in transportation engineering at McGill University.

Leila is a masters of engineering student focusing on transportation engineering at McGill University. She works at SAE as an intern with the micromobility and shared mobility committees.

*FYI on where we got the values for the chart

E-skates are based on the Segway Drift W1.E-Unicycle is based on the Ninebot One by Segway. E-skateboard is based on the Boosted Mini by Boosted Boards. E-Longboard is based on the Boosted Stealth by Boosted Boards. Hoverboard is based on the RockSaw Off-Road Bluetooth Hoverboard (All-terrain) by Street Saw. E-scooter is based on the Ninebot Kickscooter by Segway ES4. Electric personal assistive mobility device (EPAMD) is  based on the x2 SE Personal Transporter by Segway. Class 1, 2 and 3 E-Bikes are based on their classification by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission which is regulated by 16 C.F.R. Section 1512.

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