With climate change on the rise, leaders in the cleantech sector are looking for ways to create more sustainable options for everyday transportation. Micro-mobility has stepped up to the challenge in more ways than one. While fighting high gas prices and actively decreasing city traffic, micro-mobility ownership has proliferated in the last few years, aiding the fight against climate change and bringing accessible transportation to city streets.
Within the last 18 months, e-bikes have transformed from niche to mainstream. To meet this new demand for e-bikes and e-scooters, which have a staggering 240 percent growth rate in sales, many cities have opened their streets to sharing platforms and announced new infrastructure plans.
Despite the growth of sustainable transportation throughout the micro-mobility sector, the industry is still facing critical challenges. Issues around sustainability and financial feasibility have surfaced. It has come to light that the original business model is now a sinking ship, steering rapid, short-term growth but unsustainable in the long term.
Micro-mobility is a positive addition to eco-friendly transportation, but the time has come to create a sustainable, profitable and safe future benefiting consumers, business owners and the environment.
Our cities are growing
The future of our planet is urban. According to the World Bank, the world’s urban population will increase from today’s 4.4 billion to 6 billion by 2045, with nearly 70 percent of the planet living in cities by 2050.
Urbanization creates enormous transportation challenges. Public transport, already struggling in many global cities, will experience even more strain. Municipalities are attempting to reduce car use, a trend likely to continue as micro-mobility options are quickly growing.
CleanTechnica said that Miami e-scooter manufacturer Fluidfreeride’s sales are up more than 70 percent over March 2021, while another manufacturer, Bird, saw sales increase 60 percent in March 2022. E-bike sales will reach 40 million units worldwide this year, with 300 million in circulation—a 50 percent increase from 2019.
So if it’s a booming industry, what’s the problem?
Zeroing in on the micro-mobility battery
As micro-mobility continues to skyrocket, the battery remains key to both the advancements and challenges in the industry.
An issue is that the leading e-bike and e-scooter manufacturers use the same type—and often even the same brand—of batteries, leaving these companies constrained by what the battery can do.
Buying options abound for a consumer looking to buy an e-bike or e-scooter. However, in reality, the choice only lies within the different cosmetic bells and whistles of the bike or scooter, with no real fundamental differences in its most essential part—the battery.
For Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) companies running businesses that rent out these means of shared transportation, much of the focus has been placed on the immediate purchase price rather than the long-term savings and conveniences.
The industry must improve conveniences, sustainability, and safety to advance.
Currently, e-bike riders have to wait about 6-8 hours to fully charge their bikes. If the battery dies, there is no quick charging option that can quickly get them on their way again without damaging the battery. The same is true for ride-sharing programs. When batteries die, e-bikes and scooters must be picked up and transported (most likely by gas-guzzling ICE vehicles) to and from charging sites. Worse yet, the batteries are swapped out, causing a sustainability nightmare.
Typically, e-bike batteries last 2-4 years, depending on how people ride the bikes. While it seems that riding an e-bike is green, the fact is that every few years, these batteries are thrown away. Also, let’s not forget about the carbon footprint of making these batteries. We need to start making these batteries last longer to reduce waste.
According to the New York City Fire Department, there have been nearly 200 fires caused by micro-mobility devices in New York City alone this year. At issue is the influx of e-bike delivery drivers, many of whom use bikes with cheap batteries that overheat and are damaged from frequent use. Many people need to be made aware of the fire dangers of lithium-ion batteries within today’s micro-mobility applications. As e-bike popularity continues to soar, so will related fires unless new battery technologies are implemented.
The cosmetic features and short-term thinking in the micro-mobility space need to be removed and replaced by a change in the battery type. Only then can significant change in the industry—affecting manufacturers, MaaS companies, retailers, consumers, and cities—occur.
Is there profitability for the future?
The battery is the gatekeeper to profitability. Nearly every aspect of the business model, including labor, up-time, warehousing, capital, and ridership, is built around battery performance. And historically, deciding which battery to choose has come down to two metrics: cost and range.
To tackle this, companies need to flip how they assess batteries. Moving on from simply cost and range, now is the time for companies to understand the total lifetime expense of a battery. Their bottom line is affected by battery sustainability, safety, and charging times.
Currently, charging e-bikes and e-scooters for ride-share programs is inefficient, expensive, and time-consuming. It involves removing them from the streets and loading them onto trucks – usually ICE vehicles – to transport them to offsite warehouses. The battery recharging process can create an entire day of un-use, reducing operators’ revenue opportunities.
It is a particularly unwieldy and unsustainable process in large cities, where charging and maintenance must occur at scale. For example, according to Laura Fox, General Manager of Citi Bike, regular bikes can be used 10 to 15 times per day in New York, with e-bikes not far behind. That means a lot of costly – and unreliable – maintenance, as charging and operations are estimated to eat up 60 percent of costs.
No more battery swapping
One way operators have attempted to improve efficiencies is by swapping batteries. Rather than collecting e-bikes and e-scooters and transporting them to a central warehouse for charging, crews are sent out to change batteries on-site. This cuts down on congestion, keeps e-bikes and e-scooters in circulation, and prevents lost revenue. But there is a problem here.
While this process saves on operational costs, it is wasteful. Often, batteries that still have 30-40 percent of life left are swapped for ‘full’ ones, which, due to degradation, can be as low as 80 percent of their original capacity. With e-bike batteries capping out after about 500 charging cycles, this swapping significantly reduces the battery’s lifespan.
To run the swappable system efficiently and allow additional battery charging to keep the process moving, e-scooters require an estimated 1.5 to 2 battery packs. A fleet of 10,000 e-scooters would need at least 15,000 batteries. This system is costly.
Currently, the industry views batteries like the computer hardware industry views printer ink cartridges. It works on a similar model: swap old toner cartridges for new ones. However, there’s a key difference: up to 30 percent of toner cartridges get recycled. In contrast, less than 1 percent of Lithium-ion batteries get recycled in the US and EU.
There are also significant safety issues with swapping batteries. Battery packs are easily damaged, and the sheer volume of swapping results in exposure to the elements and regular mishandling. Damage caused by battery swapping can also increase fire risks.
Micro-mobility needs a new battery
The existing micro-mobility models have room for improvement if we want to create a profitable industry. Cheaper e-bikes and e-scooters can help, but more is needed to dramatically drive down costs and improve efficiency. Instead, we must look at the battery to enhance efficiency and sustainability.
We’ve seen that swapping batteries isn’t a long-term solution for costs or the environment. Ultimately, the industry needs to consider drastically cutting the volume of manufactured batteries and instead use batteries that last longer. Battery production is carbon-intensive, particularly when you add in the carbon footprint of shipping—so the fewer batteries we need to produce, the more sustainable future we create.
The only type of swapping that makes financial sense is exchanging longer-lasting batteries for next-generation designs, essentially making the battery the long-lasting “CPU” and the most critical part of the vehicle.
Further, because the battery is the cause of many operational problems and costs, finding solutions is critical for both the bottom line and the planet. Alternative battery technology and moving the industry away from cheap batteries can shift this trajectory.
Introducing lithium-titanate batteries
Lithium-titanate (LTO) battery chemistry was designed to move energy quickly and provide users with lightning-fast charging times. The batteries also offer greater safety against fires and are far more sustainable – up to 20 years.
This reinvented tech can provide micro-mobility operators with improved revenues and reduced downtime while providing greater safety to riders. In addition, reducing the swap-and-replace cycle of batteries helps operators significantly reduce the number of battery purchases.
When looking to the future of sustainable micro-mobility, efficient, long-lasting batteries will have a far kinder impact on the environment and improve sustainability and profitability in the long term. It’s time to swap out the old with the new.
About the Authors
Charlie Welch is the CEO and Co-founder of ZapBatt, a battery provider for various markets, including mobility, small infrastructure, and consumer products. As an aerospace engineer, Charlie Welch was a lead researcher at defence and technology companies testing, and optimizing a variety of battery chemistries. In doing this, he became passionate about improving and optimizing batteries for greater conveniences, safety and sustainability.
Amiad is the COO of California based ZapBatt. He is a forward-thinking operations, optimization, and strategy leader with extensive general management experience and a passion for helping companies and startups quickly and efficiently reach their full potential. Amiad has over 15 years of strong people-management and systems-management success at companies in diverse industries at different stages of growth. Since 2019, he has been engaged in the micro-mobility space, as a senior leader at Zagster – a leading fleet management and bike sharing startup to brands such as Spin, Link and Uber. He also serves as an advisor to multiple startups in this space in the US and beyond.
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