In the spring of 2018, Jeri Baker began to get a lot of phone calls. Electric scooter-share companies like Bird, Lime, and Spin had moved their two-wheeled vehicles onto the street corners of cities around the world. Now they wanted to extend onto the campuses of universities like Virginia Tech, where Baker works as the director of parking and transportation.
Baker got calls from nine or 10 companies, she says, but was won over by San Francisco-based Spin, which went so far as to send a representative to Blacksburg with a sample scooter. And now Spin—which has since been acquired by a “mobility”-minded Ford—has announced it’s launching on Virginia Tech’s campus.
But this service will do more than put college kids on scooters. It’s also an 18-month research project. Of the 300 scooters that Spin will drop upon the 4-square-mile campus next week, 50 will be wired with sensors—gyroscopes, accelerometers, and forward-facing cameras—designed to record very specific data about how the two-wheeled vehicles are moving through space. At least 20 cameras will also stud the campus, to observe scooter riders in their natural habitat.
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The partnership was forged by Ford, which has a preexisting research relationship with Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute. (That collaboration has involved a man dressing up as a car seat.) A year from now, Spin will whisk the scooters from campus, and researchers from the institute will spend the next six months combing through the data picked up by these scooters, with the goal of creating some kind of guide to safely deploying scooters in your city, town, or campus.
The problem, Virginia Tech and Spin officials say, is that no one is quite sure how to keep their users safe. Data compiled from hospitals in Los Angeles, Austin, and elsewhere indicates that, yes, some people are getting hurt riding the things. A few have died. But it’s unclear if that’s happening because e-scooters, which can clock nearly 20 mph, aren’t safe to ride. Or because streets aren’t designed for e-scooter (or bicycle) riders. Or perhaps it’s a bit of both, or something else altogether. Hospital data on scooter-related injuries is incomplete and hard to collect and compile. So the Virginia Tech researchers hope to find some answers by virtually riding along with Virginia Tech students, staff, faculty, and whoever else hops aboard.
Spin and Virginia Tech say users will be asked prior to taking a ride whether they would like their data to be used for research purposes. (They’ve been working with the university’s Institutional Review Board, which oversees all research with human subjects.) As part of their data review, the scientists will flag crashes and other sorts of dramatic events—swerves, hard braking—and “rewind the tape,” poring over the sensor data and watching the video to find out exactly what went wrong.
Aarian Marshall covers autonomous vehicles, transportation policy, and urban planning for WIRED.
“We’re looking at how the infrastructure as it’s built and maintained today affects safety and how people ride,” says Mike Mollenhauer, the director of VTTI’s Center for Technology Implementation and the principal investigator on the project. “What leads up to a particular [crash] event, and what could we do to solve that?” Depending on the results, this research could also lead Spin to make hardware changes in its scooters, says Ted Sweeney, a senior manager of public policy for the company. It might change its approach to rider education or find new ways of punishing inconsiderate or risky scooting.
It’s not as if Spin and its competitors have learned nothing from almost two years of scooters living on public roads. Scoots operating on Virginia Tech’s campus won’t be able to operate after dusk. They’ll be electronically limited to 5 mph in some well-trafficked areas of campus, like its sprawling central Drillfield, and 15 mph elsewhere. And the scooters will disappear from campus during events such as football games. Nobody wants to see an overhyped Hokies fan on two wheels.
Ford has had previous success with scooter-based research. In the fall of 2018, the automaker’s mobility division quietly launched a scooter service on the campus of Purdue University in Indiana. The research there convinced Ford that scooters were viable from a business perspective, says Sweeney—helping justify its purchase of Spin, for a reported $100 million. With more questions to answer, the automaker turned scooter operator is heading back to school.