Shanks’ pony is definitely out of fashion. In any case, relying on our feet alone is hardly likely to solve our 21st-century transport needs. But neither is relying on the polluting combustion engine. So there’s a bit of a gold rush on to find a solution to our mobility needs that is practical, sustainable and desirable. And rather than just selling cars, the big names in the automotive industry are now busy trying to come up with ways of selling and branding mobility.
Producing small and affordable environmentally friendly city cars is still proving a challenge despite the tide of new electronic vehicles coming on to the market. Electric scooters, however, offer an easier solution, and Smart and Mini have surprised many by significantly extending their brands to present e-scooters at this year’s Paris Motor Show. Peugeot, which unlike the other two already has a presence in the scooter market, also presented two e-scooters, the e-Vivacity, which goes on sale next year, and the e-Satelis concept.
Politicians, understandably enough, are enamoured – take London Mayor Boris Johnson happily being photographed with the Zepii V60, a vintage-style e-scooter from a London-based company. Another fan of the electric scooter is Richard Winsor, tutor in vehicle design at London’s Royal College of Art, whose students are fresh from a collaboration with Honda to explore new typologies for this nascent genre. ’Electric scooters have a real future, especially in the fun and commuting brackets,’ he observes. ’They are efficient, quiet and have decent acceleration and top speed. Charging facilities at home and a 40-60 mile range allow the typical commuter to arrive at work with little anxiety. At present, they are not competitive on price, but this will change as more come to the market.’
While Smart (owned by Mercedes-Benz) has always sought to be futuristic in its designs, Mini (owned by arch rival BMW) has taken the more commercially successful route of cloaking very conventional products in an attractive, if superficial, retro veneer, and supporting launches with highly effective marketing. And as you might expect, their respective e-scooters remain true to the brand: the Smart attempts to develop a modern, technological design language and includes innovative safety features, while the Mini e-scooter is happier to bask in the retro cues of both its road car and icons such as the Vespa, and focus on lifestyle and (highly profitable) customisation options.
While both incorporate some real innovation, for instance, in their seamless integration of a smartphone (which in the case of the Smart can function as the dashboard display), their overall design remains quite conservative. As Winsor notes, ’Neither has fundamentally changed or challenged the typical scooter profile.’ Nor do they have the retro appeal of the (admittedly petrol-powered) Ridley 1903, produced by an American company that has recently gone bust following a legal dispute with Harley-Davidson.
As with electric cars, it seems that manufacturers prefer to introduce new technology by stealth, adapting it under conventional designs so as not to add another hurdle to consumer acceptance. For more radical designs, you have to look further afield, such as to the work of Winsor’s students at the RCA. Or to General Motors – once the greatest climate change skeptic, now born again as a purveyor of ’sustainable urban mobility’. At the World Expo in Shanghai it launched its EN-Vs, or electric networked-vehicles. These are also two wheelers, but unlike scooters have the wheels (and passengers) abreast, in a format developed in collaboration with Segway. Although they’re only conceptual studies for what transport might look like in 2030, the designs no longer seem improbable.
The e-scooters of Mini and Smart may be nothing like as outlandish, but nonetheless mark a significant conceptual shift by the car industry, and point the way to some truly innovative designs in the future as its enormous budgets and research capabilities come to bear.