Longer range. Smaller batteries. Sleeker, more integrated designs. These are things you can expect to hear touted in 2017 by the companies that make what we at The Verge call electric rideables — an imperfect catch-all term that covers everything from electric skateboards to hoverboards to whatever the hell this is.
Some of those features are starting to hit the streets, and smart connectivity is making these things more than just boards with wheels and motors. That brings us to a point where we’re likely to see some radical innovation, maybe in the form of new shapes and sizes — personal vehicles that will blur the line between something like an electric skateboard, a bike, and a car. And, in fact, that line’s already getting pretty fuzzy.
But I really hope 2017 will be the year that the startups and major automakers start to mix in a little purpose. Electric skateboards are fun, don’t get me wrong, but the rise of electric motors has opened up great potential in this area of small, personal vehicles. That potential can be tapped if and when these companies solve a few of these concrete problems, all of which could happen in the coming year.
Let’s start with range, which is the biggest hangup for any kind of electrically-powered vehicle. Current electric skateboards offer anywhere from around 5 or 6 miles of range at the low end to around 15 at the high end, with a few outliers offering upwards of 20 miles of range. Electric bikes — which typically use electric motors to assist your pedaling, as opposed to driving the bike completely — tend to have 20 or more miles of range.
Those numbers vary thanks to factors like like the person’s weight, how many hills they try to tackle, and how aggressively they ride. But they’re also dependent on the size of the battery being used. And if we’ve learned anything from 2016, it’s that all kinds of companies are pushing existing battery tech to its limits.
Range is still a barrier, just like with electric cars
The same is true with electric rideables. A company called Metroboard sells a board with a 40 mile range — the tradeoff being that the battery, and therefore the board, is massive. The most popular electric skateboard maker, Boosted, unveiled a second generation board in 2016 with an extended range battery that promised up to 14 miles.
But Boosted had to delay the shipment of those batteries because the company needed “further engineering time in additional safety features to match the exceptional safety performance of our standard battery.” Problem was, issues started cropping up with the standard battery, too — two riders reported smoke from the battery compartments, so Boosted had to suspend shipments and is still currently investigating what went wrong.
If these companies can push past battery issues, we’re likely to see sleeker, more efficient designs. That means no belts hanging exposed from outboard motors, and cleverly integrated batteries — like on VanMoof’s sharp electric bikes.
Clearing this hurdle would help free up room for further innovation. Boosted, for example, already built accessory ports into the newest board — though it didn’t make them very easy to access. Some hoverboards have bluetooth speakers and flashing LED lights. And a number of companies are already using the smarts inside these vehicles to talk to and display data on your phone. Right now that data is mostly things like total miles traveled, which is good for diagnostics and social posts but not much else. But what happens with that connectivity going forward will be interesting to watch. Might your board and phone do something like show you the best times to charge based on your riding patterns, similar to what we see in electric cars?
I’ve used that word “vehicles” purposefully though. Right now the status of these rideables is sort of a gray area depending on where you ride them. (For example, in California, they’re legal to ride anywhere you can ride a bike. In New York, they’re still technically illegal.) Companies are even limiting the speeds in order to keep them from being subjected to further regulations. Yes, some rideables can already go much faster, but the people who make them are hiding those top speeds behind dams of software.
Beyond that it’s hard to say what the next evolution of all this will look like, though we’ve seen plenty wild ideas already. Single-person self-balancing vehicles, smart electric scooters, the three-wheeled Arcimoto SRK. Hell, there’s even a couple different true-to-life hoverboards, and a few prototype self-balancing motorcycles (something Apple even reportedly has interest in). There’s a good chance we see more of these come to fruition in 2017, or at the very least, start seeing acquisitions along these lines. The real question will be whether they’ll come from big companies, startups, or both. For now — save for a few exceptions like the Nissan Mobility Concept — it’s mostly startups.
And then there’s social acceptance. The US may have mostly turned its back on hoverboards (even before they started going up in flames), but electric skateboards and longboards can be more than a novelty “last mile” vehicle, much like scooters are in other countries — especially when the prices start to drop.
If problems like range are solved, and smart features that make sense are added, will that be enough to convince people to ride an electric skateboard to work? Or even something like the Ford Carr-E, which is like a glorified Roomba? And how about a more concerted focus on accessibility? Companies have shown they’re ready and willing to generate novel ideas in this space, but as they expand on that impulse they’ll need to do a better job showing us why we need them in the first place. 2017 would be a good time to start.