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Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Lime's New Scooter Is Hardier, Heavier, and Built for Life on the Streets

There are two things you need to know about my visit to Lime’s San Francisco office to see their new scooter, a thick, rugged white and green thing they’re calling Gen 3. The first is that I showed up almost 20 minutes late after getting caught in the city’s underground metro tunnel for half an hour. The second is that I walked-ran into the office building and onto its elevator, where I found Lime CEO and cofounder Toby Sun. He was equally late, thanks to a trip that went from trafficky car to slow subway ride.

Which is all to say that someone needs to fix this transportation system, stat. And Lime thinks its shared bikes and scooters can do just that.

“This industry is important for society,” Sun told me, once we were sitting in Lime’s lime-flecked office. “It’s green, it's reducing congestion, pollution—everything.” The startup’s internal surveys seem to demonstrate that scooter rides have replaced some emissions-spewing car trips. (The average length of its trips, 1.06 miles for both bikes and scooters, suggests some riders might have been walking instead.)

However they might otherwise move about, Lime wants to see more of them on scooters. Thus Generation 3, which is actually the sixth iteration of the company’s scooter since it got into scootering eight months ago.

Designed in-house by engineers in both California and China and built by four different manufacturers that the company will not name, this vehicle signals a new phase for the $1.1 billion startup, but also the broader scooter world: a vehicle meant to be shared, ready for a life in rough and tumble streets—and rough and tumble community board hearings.1 It will roll out in select markets in November, and everywhere you can Lime next year. It’s not the only scooter startup to roll out a new and improved two wheel: Bird introduced its newest model earlier this month.

The new scooter looks like a bulked up version of the old, like a brown bear preparing for the winter. (Indeed, Lime is gearing up for its first full winter as a bike and scooter company.) It’s between 40 and 45 pounds, five to 15 pounds heavier than earlier models. Juicers, the contract workers who gather and charge the scooters nightly for a fee, should consider hitting the weight room.

A dual suspension and bigger wheels ease the hit from potholes and the cobblestones of Paris, where Lime riders now complete about 30,000 rides a day. The battery should last 30 miles, about 20 percent longer, and sits under the rider’s feet instead of in the stem, for improved stability. (Sun says swappable battery tech, which many electric vehicle companies say will speed up scooter charging, logistics, and eventually scaling, isn’t yet ready for prime time.)

The thing is built to last up to or even over a year, Sun says. (Earlier versions generally conked out at six months, according to Lime.) To test the new generation, Lime’s engineers subjected their creation to lab tests and street tests, pelting them with, for example, salt water, to ensure they could live seaside. Unlike the last generation of scooters, which were water resistant, these scooters are waterproof, which means they could take a quick dip in a pool, lake, or San Francisco Bay and live to roll another day. (They can’t stay submerged for too long, Sun warns.) Because you can’t stop the public from destroying things, Lime made the scooters partly modular, so the company’s contract mechanics can pop apart and fix the things by removing just a few screws.

Lime has also rethought some user experience elements. Now, each scooter will come equipped with an LED status light indicating the battery’s status (green for full, yellow for medium, red for dead). A new 2.8-inch color screen will flash reminders about riding safely and parking out of the public right of way. Someday, they could be used to provide turn-by-turn navigation.

Or to create spontaneous virtual parking zones. With some help from built-in GPS, Bluetooth, and near-field communication sensors, Lime could one day prompt two users to park parallel to each other—and refuse to lock nearby users’ scooters unless they place them in between those two, limiting how much space the vehicles take up. One other neat trick the startup has promised but hasn’t yet demonstrated: It says these scooters have everything they need to detect whether users are riding on streets or sidewalks when they shouldn’t be, and to warn them off them.

The ambitious parking plans are, in part, an effort to placate cities, some of which are greatly concerned about electric scooter share. They’re ugly, cities complain, and pollute the public right of way, where walkers or drivers should go. The new features are evidence Lime is willing to play nice.

Not that it doesn’t have a roguish streak. In August, the company was locked out of its home base of San Francisco, where a lengthy permitting process by the MTA chose two rival companies instead. On October 12, the company sued to stop the MTA from going forward with its scooter pilot project. A judge denied the startup’s temporary restraining order that same day, but the legal matter is ongoing.2

“Suing the SFMTA is the last thing we want to do,” says Sun. “In the past 12 to 14 months we've been trying really hard, working with the city from all angles. But we just feel the whole process is unfair.”

To win, or at least remain alive in the scooter wars, Lime is going to have to sway more city halls, which often have direct authority over the sidewalks where the scoots are stored. Lime believes putting out a great, hardy vehicle, one that people love, is an important part of that. “That is probably the end game: Whoever can build a great product, do better on operation, and then have a healthy relationship with the city to maximize the impact of this new technology," says Sun.

The healthy relationship is a work in progress. One more thing you should know about my visit to Lime’s San Francisco office to see their new scooter is that, after Sun had left, WIRED’s photographers took the new scooter down to the sidewalk for a quick photo shoot. And it only took a few minutes: “Is that your scooter?” a woman walking by asked irritably. “Can you move it over there? I need to get to work.”

Can a really great scooter ride overcome that kind of hostility? Lime’s hoping.

1Correction appended, 10/19/18, 12:05 PM EDT: A previous version of this story misstated the company that manufactures Lime's new scooters.2Correction appended, 10/19/18, 2:30 PM EDT: This story has been corrected to clarify the status of Lime's lawsuit against the SFMTA.

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