Thursday, December 14, 2017

Auto shows are dead, bring on the personal mobility device conventions

This article by me originally appeared at

Auto shows are so 1999.
We’ve come a long way since then. Although most of the U.S. public is still heavily wed to personal autos, various industries – including the auto industry – are positive that the future will look different.
Such a future was on display last month at LA CoMotion, held in the Arts District of Downtown Los Angeles (Mobility Lab was a media sponsor). In many ways, it was just like one of those old auto shows, but instead, it was all about the variety of transportation choices now offered by “personal mobility devices.”
Attendees and exhibitors were convinced that, sooner or later, everyone will want a specialized device that will be perfect for their specific needs of getting around town, going to work, running errands, and reducing the time they need to be stuck behind the wheel.
One major hurdle for now: “Streets aren’t really designed for all these little devices we have out here,” said Katherine Perez-Estolano of the planning firm Arup, motioning towards the test tracks and exhibits outside the conference’s main speaking area.
She even (only half-jokingly) suggested that autonomous kayaks would be a great addition to the nearby L.A. River.
“That little ball that’s rolling around outside is real. This is all happening now,” suggested Stephen F. Smith from Carnegie Mellon University, in reference to the event’s omnipresent Gita, which acts as a kind of robotic luggage.
Sasha Hoffman, chief operating officer of Piaggio Fast Forward, which created the Gita (pronounced jee-tah), said the little round robot uses camera technology to recognize a person’s leg and then follows the person everywhere, carrying whatever – as long as it’s 45 pounds or less – that person needs for the day.
She pictures it being a feature of, say, a conceirge desk at a hotel or in high-rise or retirement communities, where people can unlock it with their smartphones, cart their stuff around as needed, and then return it for the next users.
The Gita was really the one product at LA CoMotion that most embraced good old walking. Most everything else seemed to recognize the one recurring, ultimate trait of humans: laziness.
Don’t want to walk to transit? Take this. Don’t want to use up your daily allotment of brainpower navigating to work through traffic in your own car? Take this.
Perhaps the personal mobility device that seems the furthest along in having a shot at altering the way many of us move around is the electric bike – which almost seems a little old-fashioned by now compared to many of the other products at LA CoMotion.
Bosch, along with making auto parts and dish washers, is now churning out perhaps the world’s best e-bike motors, which basically repurpose car tech for bike tech. Bosch-powered e-bikes rolled out in Europe about eight years ago and did the same in the U.S. about three years ago.
Demand for mid-drive, pedal-assist e-bikes is increasing at around 30 percent growth each of the past several years, according to Jonathan Weinert, sales and marketing manager for Bosch eBike Systems. 
“The really nice thing about pedal assist is that people love to bicycle but they hate the hills and the sweat. You still have to do some work with pedal assist, but it’s more like a moped. The barrier to cycling goes down because it flattens hills and shrinks cities.”
Weiner said e-bike companies originally saw older adults as the prime market, but now Millennials are showing more interest, families are buying cargo e-bikes, and younger people are using them for commuting and mountain biking. He said he thinks e-bikes will increase ridership for transit as well.
“The toughest thing is to get someone to throw a leg over an electric bike. Once they do, they’re sold on it,” he said. And by the thrilled looks on the faces of riders on the LA CoMotion test tracks, he’s correct.
The same could be said for those testing e-scooters. While not as fast as e-bikes, these devices have advantages such as taking up less space on streets and in storage. One of several that were featured at LA CoMotion was the folding urb-e, and it actually is pretty zippy. You may recall Silicon Valley TV star Thomas Middleditch riding (and struggling) around the office on one in a recent Verizon Wireless commercial.
Simon Caballero, an urb-e sales manager, said the Pasadena-based company sold 3,000 in its first year of operation five years ago and hasn’t looked back since.
“We partner with Metro and Metrolink in Southern California as the only electric vehicle allowed on their systems,” Caballero said about the scooters, which range in price from $900 to $2,000.
For those a little less comfortable enjoying the wind in their hair, the future will probably offer a world filled with driverless shuttles to take you from home to the subway, from one end of town to another, or along a sightseeing path.
The one available for test rides at LA CoMotion was courtesy of Transdev, an Illinois-based company that mostly has its eyes set on becominga solution for people whose walk to transit is a little further away than ideal.
But the vehicles could also be used at airports, business campuses, universities, amusement parks, and other places, according to Neal Hemenover, North America chief information officer for Transdev.
The company is currently working on some test pilots in Europe as well as San Ramon, Calif., which he said are similar to the Las Vegas pilot underway in that city’s busy tourist corridor.
Watch Hemenover explain further as he took me for a ride, and how the vehicle senses its environment:
Similarly, SAE International was on hand to give people test rides in a driverless car. Here’s what it felt like to ride in the passenger seat:
There was certainly a lot more on display at LA CoMotion (how could I forget drones? see below) – and it will be fascinating to watch which of these products catch on and which are relegated to the junk heaps of history.
But for now, another exhibitor was not offering a product but rather information, with a new website called Have A Go that helps people decide which personal mobility devices are right for them.
Photos and videos by Paul Mackie for Mobility Lab.