Unagi, the electric scooter maker behind one of the better micromobilty vehicles on the market right now, has a new model ready for you. It’s called the Model One Voyager, and it’s meant to last longer, ride more smoothly, and be easier to use. The only thing is: Unagi doesn’t really want you to buy one. It would much rather you subscribe to one.
David Hyman, Unagi’s CEO, is absolutely convinced that subscription is the future of scooters. Not plunking down $1,000 for one and definitely not a ride-sharing one. “It was a total fluke that electric scooters started through ride-sharing,” he says over Zoom from his California home. Bird, Lime, and the rest got people used to the idea that a scooter could be a useful vehicle for getting around, but “you’ve got to wake up, hunt, and peck for one, usually the first or second or third ones are broken, or the batteries are dead.” Buying one solves most of those problems — “it’s like your own magic carpet,” Hyman says — but comes with its own downsides. Namely, scooters are expensive and often pretty flimsy. Plus, where do you put it when you get to the restaurant?
For the last few years, Unagi has experimented with an in-between model: users pay about $50 a month to get their own Unagi Model One scooter, but Unagi handles all the maintenance and even replaces the scooter if it’s broken or stolen. Hyman compares the model to Netflix’s DVD-by-mail system — it’s stuff as a service.
The subscription model is working for Unagi to the point where Hyman is pivoting the company around it. Already, he says, 20 people sign up for an Unagi subscription for every one who buys a scooter outright, and the company has “tens of thousands” of active scooter subscribers. Now, Unagi is launching the Voyager to try to get even more riders on board and is killing its most ambitious project ever because it doesn’t fit the model anymore. At least as far as Unagi is concerned, scooters as a service is the future of micromobility.
I’ve been an Unagi subscriber for the last few months after some back-of-the-napkin math made it clear that even my occasional rides to train stations and grocery stores were adding up to more than $50 a month. (Many of the scooter-share companies have jacked up their prices considerably over the last couple of years to make up for VC funding drying up and an early pandemic downturn.) It’s definitely less convenient since I can’t just dump my scooter on the street when I’m done with it, but knowing there’s one always available has made me trust the scooter system much more.
I now ride mine almost every day: to pick up takeout dinner, to grab a quick coffee between meetings, to hop on the subway to get to the office. Luckily, I live in a town with great roads and respectful traffic and only occasionally have to brave the truly mean streets of Washington, DC.
I’m still on the standard Model One, but I might be due for an upgrade. Unagi’s new scooter, the Model One Voyager, was built to solve one very specific problem: range. The number one reason people return their Unagis and cancel their subscriptions, Hyman says, is because the Model One’s advertised 15.5-mile range just isn’t enough. The Voyager, in comparison, is rated to last a full 25 miles on a charge, which is far more than most scooters can claim. “We’ve taken range off the table,” Hyman says. In exchange, the Voyager is slightly heavier — at 29.6 pounds, it’s just over a pound heavier than the Model One — but it’s still among the lighter models in its category.
The Voyager also has more torque and higher peak power, charges slightly faster, and comes in a couple of new colors, including one that Hyman himself describes as Unagi’s “bougiest” color yet: a white scooter with brown accents that the company calls Latte. (It was almost creme brulee, he says, but that was a step too far.) There’s nothing game-changing in the new model — which I suppose is why it’s not called the Model Two — but it should make everyday use a little more pleasant.
There’s nothing game-changing in the new model, but it should make everyday use a little more pleasant
Unagi is also upgrading the smarts inside its scooters. The Voyager’s onboard display has been simplified and upgraded to make settings easier to find, and it also now connects to an Unagi app over Bluetooth. You can use the app to toggle your headlights, see how much you’ve ridden and how much battery remains, plus get information about maintenance issues and your subscription. The app isn’t meant to replace the functionality on the scooter itself, Hyman says, just give you another way to access it.
The Voyager’s new display and connectivity are also compatible with the original Model One. Part of Unagi’s subscription system involves refurbishing returned scooters and sending them out to new users, and from now on, Hyman says the company will drop in the new parts when a Model One comes back. The whole process costs $15 a scooter.
A subscription Voyager will run you $67 a month, which is $12 more than the Model One’s $55 monthly hit. You might notice even the Model One is more expensive than it used to be, sort of — the subscription itself was previously $49, and for another $5 a month, you could get theft insurance. Just about everyone ponied up the extra $5, Hyman tells me, so Unagi just decided to bake it into the base price. (Where that last dollar a month went, though, he wouldn’t say.)
You’ll be able to start your subscription through Unagi’s website, but the company’s also going to start selling scooters in Best Buy — and Hyman hints there are other brick-and-mortar partnerships to come. It’s the same theory as rideshare: the first step is just getting people to think about scooters at all, and once they do, they’re often sold.
The scooter Unagi is shipping next is more practical but vastly less ambitious than the one it has decided not to ship at all. Last fall, the company revealed Model Eleven, a $2,490 vehicle that used a multi-lens camera system to help riders avoid crashes, was created with a new material called “long carbon,” and could do turn-by-turn audio directions. It was meant to be the Tesla Roadster of scooters, with a price tag to match.
The Model Eleven raised more than $700,000 on Indiegogo, but Unagi recently canceled the project. Hyman calls it “one of the hardest, most emotionally challenging business decisions I’ve ever made” after years of work and millions of dollars spent on its development. In the long run, Hyman says he hopes the Model Eleven’s features will appear in other Unagi devices, but it just didn’t make sense for the business anymore. Unagi is offering backers a full refund, two Voyagers, or a three-year subscription to a Voyager as compensation.
Ultimately, there will be lots of different kinds of these vehicles, probably including impossibly expensive and massively powerful scooters. Research from McKinsey and others has found that the micromobility market is growing almost any way you slice it: new vehicles, new riders, new cities, and new business models.
There won’t just be one winner, either. “If you truly want to get rid of your car and live micromobility only, or micromobility plus car sharing if you’ll do a trip outside the city, it’s going to be a combination of form factors,” McKinsey partner Kersten Heineke said recently. Hyman, too, is quick to point out that companies like Rad Power Bikes are doing cool work in the space. But he seems to still think he’s going to win in the end.
During our conversations, Hyman mentions a few times how hard it was to get the subscription service up and running. Maintenance teams, customer support services, quick shipping — it might not be as expensive as setting up fleets of chargers and mechanics in every city the way Bird and Lime have, but it hasn’t been easy. Going forward, though, he’s convinced Unagi is set up for the way people want to live with their scooters. And he’s convinced Unagi still makes the best ones.