Since 2000, year of launch of the Sustainable Mobility Project promoted by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), many actions and initiatives have been carried out in order to reduce human impact resulting from his innate need to move. As a matter of fact, Human Being’s activities are increasingly affecting Planet ecosystem as witnessed by the relevant increase in average temperature starting from the 1980s onwards. A targeted set of indicators and a large involvement of different parties from various sectors have tried to design a new transport network in view of the growing human demand to be interconnected worldwide, faster and faster.
The big problem was how to make this compatible with all ecosystems and preserve ecological values. In some Countries, electric scooters have recently attracted the attention of the public opinion for their user-friendliness, supported in some cases by a system of state incentives. Thus, from a vintage-style instrument of transport, they were presented as eco-sustainable tools, up to being considered as ‘iconic objects’ during the pandemic. But are they really so eco-friendly? Some interesting considerations emerged from a quite recent report study by MONACŒCOART®.
As it often happens in all industrial productions, you have to check every step of the supply chain before defining a product, totally or partially 'green'.
As stated by some influential reports, electric scooter (e-scooter) mania that was spreading all over Europe and internationally long before the pandemic must be taken with a more rigorous consideration. As it often happens in all industrial productions, you have to check every step of the supply chain before defining a product, totally or partially 'green'. Typically: manufacturing, energy-production, product use and end-of-life, or recycling. In this case, it is not at all obvious. Not by chance, a controversial debate has been going on for a long time.
Any means of transport fuelled by renewable energy are more efficient than business-as-usual fossil-fuel vehicles but we must also consider the use of resources necessary to produce its components, notably the batteries. John Broderick of the Royal Society of Chemistry (UK) has recently stated it. Driving an e-scooter can definitely reduce the use of cars but this does not necessarily mean reducing our carbon footprint. A specific research made in Switzerland in December 2021 showed the contrary, as for rented electric scooters.
Even if e-scooters, frequently included in smart cities app-sharing, are generally treated as less polluting than fossil fuels engines, provided that they are powered by 'clean energy', some other issues need to be taken into account, with reference primarily to their structure and their use by consumers. Many, in fact, choose them not for an environmental issue but because it is fun to lead them through the streets .
What is the real impact of their manufacturing? How much energy will be spent to charge and recharge them? How long does their charging will last? To what extent its components are recyclable? In other words, what are their rank of eco-friendliness, compared to other means of transport?
Their sustainable side is questioned by a current of thought that is pointing out a series of weaknesses: 1. a reduced possibility to recycle the lithium-ion batteries; 2. an increased need in extracting rare metals, potentially polluting, in order to build the scooter frame and components; 3. the use of 'dirty' oil-or-coal-based electricity to make them rolling; 4. the necessity to use fuel vehicles to bring them to the charging station. On the other hand, others think that it is definitely a relevant eco-driver being fuelled by renewable energy sources.
Given this, the current state of knowledge confirms that the less impacting step is just the use of an electric scooter. According to a recent study by North Carolina State University conducted in August 2019, for example, e-scooters’ carbon footprint is the same as a conventional car and 3,5 times higher than an electric car. “What we found is while they might have zero tailpipe emissions, there are definitely upstream and downstream processes that definitely do not make the processes carbon-free” (source: The Guardian), pointed out Joseph Hollingsworth, civil and environmental engineer and author of the study.
The reason for all this lies mainly in the assembly stages. In order to make an electric scooter efficient, in fact, you need to build a lithium-ion battery for each single-use model as well as you are usually forced to carry it on board a pollutant vehicle for any maintenance or recharging operation.
But other factors contribute to this not encouraging result. One of these is directly connected to the use that is made of it. The average durability of an electric scooter is about one year allowing their users to cover a few hundred kilometres, a too limited use to ‘offset’ the environmental impact of one battery. The proportion remains negative even if we would use it for more than one year. But in real life electric scooters have frequently a shorter life. Many of them have been used for just one month and then left due to technical problems for misuse or acts of vandalism.
In order to consider a means of transport environmentally friendly we should receive such a benefit that allows us to replace traditional vehicles with it.
Electric scooters are able to do it as regards short distances. But in many cases it seems to produce more CO2 than walking, cycling, using public or private vehicles. So, their 'sustainability' is limited to those scenarios where their use really replaces impacting vehicles on equal terms. A condition that is still not always easy to find in urban centres.
Last but not least, recent data show an increase in injuries involving electric scooters, some of which are fatal. In Denmark, for instance, where they were massively promoted starting from January 2019, several cases have already been recorded resulting from improper use or distraction. Many car drivers are not used yet to the idea of having scooters hurtling through the streets. Some people think they can do anything on board an e-scooter since the legislation is still confusing on their use. Apparently, you do not need any protection nor a driving licence although it is a vehicle, without any doubt. Drunk driving can have very serious consequences as testified by a fresh Danish police report. Moreover, being in the traffic jam with a low battery e-scooter does not feel that good. As a matter of fact, the London Met Police recorded more than 500 injuries involving E-scooters in the British capital, in 2021.
A targeted awareness campaign should always accompany the launch of electric scooters as for other means of transport. And an increased number of citizens and associations are pushing governments to provide greater clarity and introduce safety rules for e-scooters. Isabelle van Brabant, professional pianist at Paris Opera House, knows something about after having serious injuries, being hit by an electric scooter at Les Halles, in May 2019. That prevented her from playing the piano for one year.
A key point in this respect is the silence of the scooter that in this case can represent a real risk for passers-by, including persons with reduced sensory capacity (e.g.: blind people). Academic research is therefore being carried out to make them recognisable. The University of Salford (UK), for example, is developing a universal sound to allow pedestrians detect them. Of course, common sense and prudence are always excellent deterrents to prevent accidents. Respecting speed limits and wearing helmets would be a 'mantra' for all e-scooter riders, considering their original unstable structure.
Maybe the electric scooter could be a starting point to develop a future interconnected ‘smart’ mobility and it is definitely a user-friendly tool. Nevertheless, the current knowledge shows that their energy performance must be improved to become a whole environmentally-friendly and safe means of transport. Let’s see what the future holds. ***
By Maurice Abbati