The history of electric scooters
Posted by Tom Lee on
The electric scooter has become synonymous with the word ‘rental’. In cities across the world, rental scooters litter pavements as people hop on and off these disposable machines. In an effort to fix this, Taur is developing the ultimate electric scooter for ownership – a scooter that's portable while being built for safe riding. And while that might seem groundbreaking, history shows there has always been public appetite for affordable, roadworthy, power-assisted scooters. It’s a history that’s longer than many would think; so while Taur might be looking to the future of scooters, here we delve into their past.
The first electric scooter
When was the electric scooter invented? The answer may surprise you. Although the scooter seemed ever-present in the 1990s, it turns out that was merely a revival. The first electric scooter, known as the Autoped, hit shops in 1915 New York; just three years after the Titanic sank, in the city she never reached.
Much like today, Autopeds found consumers before legislators had a chance to implement regulation – in 1915, traffic lights were still fifteen years away. Throughout scooter history, regulators have always been playing catch up. Over the last ten years the delivery workers that power the Big Apple have been pleading with authorities to legalise the e-scooter, a fight that was only won in April this year.
Who was the first electric scooter for?
Looking through marketing images for the Autoped, it’s clear there was a heavy targeting of newly independent women. The company sought to establish their scooter as a practical symbol of women’s newfound freedom and mobility, with suffragettes such as Lady Florence Norman an early adopter when the vehicles hit Great Britain in 1916.
Although they were released to much public excitement, they were technically illegal under the Highways Act of 1835; and it is because of this archaic act that e-scooters are still outlawed on British roads. The fact that the first power-assisted scooters were so popular with women should give us pause for thought; why is the present-day micromobility market so male-orientated? Most marketing seems to focus on male early-adopters. What would a scooter have to look like to make young women in big cities feel like it was a realistic, safe option? It’s certainly a question Taur believes is worth exploring.
Women were not the only demographic to fall in love with the Autoped; the New York Post Office signed a contract with the company to provide their postmen with an easier, more nimble method of delivering, and police officers also used them for patrols. Unfortunately gang members also reappropriated them for easier getaways, which perhaps is why the early press response was not overwhelmingly positive; initially the vehicle was dismissed as a “freak” by the cycling press, while The Sun called it a “Solo Devil Wagon”. But back then, just as now, press hysteria did nothing to quell public appetite.
Essentially resembling an enlarged children’s kick scooter, the Autopeds possessed a robust frame that consisted of a standing platform, two 10 inch wheels and a curved Art Deco base, mimicking the fashionable car designs of the 1930s. Much like todays’ portable electric scooters, the Autoped’s handlebars and steering column were fully foldable. With an air-cooled engine mounted on the front wheel, both the clutch and brakes were activated by the angled steering column, which had to be pulled back and forth to accelerate or slow down. Although unwieldy to operate, the fact it was a low-energy mode of transport during the fuel rationing of WWI meant it remained popular. That said, US productions ceased in 1921 after the company failed to hit its sales targets.
Yet in the aftermath of the Great Depression, the motorised scooter was back in fashion thanks to increasing public consciousness around environmentalism. It also coincided with the Golden Age of Hollywood, seen as the ideal way to get around LA’s sprawling studio lots. The resulting pictures of stars like Humphrey Bogart gripping the handlebars only served to propel the scooter’s status, with its consistent fuel efficiency allowing advertisers to claim the scooter was “cheaper than walking”.
The 1980s and the Go-Ped
The next few decades proved somewhat of a dark age; it was not until 1986 that Go-Ped released the first stand-up, gas powered scooters since the Autoped. With a large deck in the centre for the rider’s feet, and the motor placed on the back wheel, the low-profile design powered the second great scooter boom into the 1990s. When Lithium-ion batteries were invented in 1991, the most efficient and eco-friendly to date, electronic transportation finally became viable.
Companies like Micro and Razor reignited the world’s passion for scooters, but in 2001 it was Go-Ped that released the world’s first electronically-powered scooter and, soon after, other companies were developing their first electric versions to compete. Despite this, the Razor scooter was still seen as a toy – it even won the ‘Summer Toy of the Year award’ in 2000. The long history of the Autoped had seemingly been forgotten. Although not by former Swiss banker Wim Ouboter, who claimed to have invented the kick-scooter in 1990 as an adult solution to travelling small distances.
One day in 1990, Ouboter wanted to get a Bratwurst, however the distance between his apartment and the restaurant was too long to walk, but too short to cycle. The result of this conundrum was his adult kick-scooter, which he thought would transform the way people move around cities.
Although ahead of his time, he has been proved correct. Thanks to much cheaper battery costs, scooters are easier to produce than ever before; and the second great scooter boom of the ‘90s has led to the sorts of models we see today, with lighter weight, much-increased agility and improved suspension. And it is the persistence of Ouboter’s conundrum for big city travel, the so-called ‘first/last mile problem’, that means the popularity of electric scooters is only set to grow. As cities get bigger, then so will the e-scooter market.
The future with Taur
Scooters have come a long way since the Autoped, and although the industry’s history is rich, the present day is unsustainable. How much longer will cities put up with the rental scooters that litter their streets? History is cyclical, fashions come and go; if we’re to make this boom sustainable, we need to produce a portable, safe, roadworthy scooter that people are proud to own.