By on February 22, 2018

It’s one of those scenarios that brings to mind William Gibson’s maxim about the future being unevenly distributed. About 90 days ago, approximately 1,000 Chinese-made electric scooters appeared more or less overnight around Santa Monica and Venice in California. Each scooter featured an individual QR code and directions to download the “BIRD” app. With that app, anybody with a credit card and a California driver’s license could “unlock” the scooter and ride it anywhere in the area. The cost? One dollar to start, and 15 cents a minute.

Seemingly overnight, the beach paths and access roads of Santa Monica were overrun with people whipping along at the BIRD top speed of 22 miles per hour. Quite a few of them got hurt. The city of Santa Monica was very unhappy. Apparently the BIRD deployment had happened without notice — and without so much as a vendor’s license application. They sued BIRD for operating a business without a permit. Worse than that, they deployed the cops to issue tickets to anybody breaking any law on a BIRD, from operation without a helmet to parking on a right of way.

BIRD paid $300,000 in fines, limited the speed of the scooters to 15 mph, and started “cracking down” on underage riders. But the BIRDs remain controversial, to say the least. Naturally, the minute I heard about these things I figured I’d better high-tail it to Venice for some BIRD time of my own. As everybody knows, Los Angeles is the home of Motor Trend, a magazine where rumor says the editorial staff is not permitted to test the cars on track, so I figured I’d honor that tradition by bringing a test driver who has won races on both two wheels and four to operate the BIRD at its very limit.

BIRD, which is in all caps like MINI keeps trying to be, picks up nearly all the scooters every night for charging. They’re then deposited in groups between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. every morning all around Venice and Santa Monica. There’s no limit to how far you can take a BIRD other than the range — according to some accounts, people have ridden BIRDs to LAX and Beverly Hills.

My test driver and I left our Venice Beach digs at 8 a.m. sharp to find some BIRDs. I fired up the app, which told me that there was a BIRD down the street. When we got there, however, there was no visible scooter. On a hunch, I looked over the privacy wall of the house next to where the app was displaying the BIRD.

Looks like some Venice homeowner decided to make his BIRD private. It’s actually a brilliant idea: by putting the BIRD behind your gate you can effectively have a free reservation. Everywhere else, it’s first come first serve.

The app told us there was a group of 12 BIRDs where North Venice Blvd ended at a parking lot. As we arrived, a group of seven Latino teenagers started trying to activate a few of them. They chatted excitedly in Spanish about the app and the speed of the scooters. Unfortunately for them, only three of them had driver’s licenses. Those three quickly got their BIRDs up and running; the most enthusiastic of them promptly drove at full speed into a parked car. He was a bit scraped but the scooter seemed perfectly fine. After some discussion, six of the seven teens rode off double-up, leaving the odd man out to run after them.

“Silly dudes,” I told my pro driver, “they didn’t realize they needed a driver’s license.” My amusement turned to embarrassment a few moments later, because the BIRD app doesn’t recognize or accept an Ohio license. I had to get a friend of mine to let me borrow his phone, which was already connected to a BIRD account. Thus equipped, my tester and I were off and riding in moments, jamming down the Venice bike path at full speed. Incidentally, we tried to “steal” a BIRD just for fun, moving it before it had been unlocked. It beeped like crazy until we stopped rolling it. Not that a little bit of beeping would deter a thief, of course, but what use is a scooter that you can’t ride?

This is how you ride the BIRD: stand on it like a “Razor” scooter and push with your foot until it’s doing about 2 mph. At that point, the thumb-operated throttle comes into play, taking you up to 15 mph in a silent rush. A single brake lever on the left side of the narrow handlebars activates a disc brake on the rear wheel. It can lock said rear wheel at any speed; the day before, riding a tandem bike up the beach, I’d become accustomed to the slide-squeak noise of BIRDs being panic-braked all around me.

There’s enough room for two people to ride a BIRD as long as they are emotionally involved or one of them is just eight years old. Our combined weight of 305 pounds didn’t seem to bother the scooter at all. Maneuverability is excellent if you are accustomed to the way Razor scooters ride — sadly, I am. Of course, the BIRD is adult-scaled compared to a Razor, particularly in terms of handlebar height.

After an uneventful trip of about a mile and a half, I stepped off the BIRD and handed it to my professional tester with strict instructions to run it FLAT OUT. He kicked up to speed then started a series of max-velocity figure-eights, periodically locking the back wheel for a couple of slides on areas where sand had drifted out from the beach to the parking lot. It made me a bit nervous watching him — I’ve spent more than nine years funding this fellow’s career, so I have a lot invested and I can’t tolerate any crashing on his part. To my relief, he completed his testing and returned the BIRD to me. I guess now I know how the R&T management feels every time I don’t wreck a six-figure car during our PCOTY timing session.

“What did you think?” I inquired.

“It’s very easy to ride,” he said, “but I wish it was faster.” He didn’t mention understeer at the limit, which seemed unusual, but I did not pursue it. He did, however, note that it is difficult for a small hand to keep the thumb-operated throttle at maximum. I’m sure BIRD is fine with that since in theory you have to be 18 to ride one. “I wish we had BIRDs back home,” he continued, “and also I want some cotton candy, I saw some at a store that we rode by.” After securing the cotton candy, we left the BIRD next to our temporary home and locked it with the phone. Total cost: less than four dollars for two miles’ worth of riding.

Later on that evening, we walked through Venice to a pizza place about a mile off the shore. The BIRDs were omnipresent, zipping by us and casting shadows in the headlights of the cars they cut off with gleeful abandon. It became glaringly obvious that the social taboo regarding drunk or stoned driving does not in any way apply to BIRDs. We saw them lying on the ground, propped against alley walls, kickstanded on sidewalks. The app reported that most of them were completely out of battery.

I did a bit of research to figure out how much a BIRD costs. I’m pretty sure that the basis for the BIRD is the Xiaomi M365, which costs $500 before you add the remote unlocking capability. By my calculations, a BIRD pays for itself in about two months, give or take. After that, it’s nothing but profit, to the tune of 20 or 30 dollars a day.

Right now there’s more than a little bit of novelty demand driving their use, to say nothing of their particular usefulness as tourist-mobiles up and down the coast. Still, I can’t help but think that BIRD is giving us a glimpse of the future at its most disruptive. After all, it’s not uncommon for a five-mile commute in Los Angeles to take the better part of an hour. A BIRD could get you there in half that time, or less, for a total daily commute cost of maybe nine bucks. At that price level, even the omnipresent baristas can take advantage. There’s just one question: Can you trust BIRD to be around in the future? If you sold your car and relied on the service, would it be there six months now? Or would you walk out one day to find that these BIRDs… have flown?

[Images: Jack Baruth/TTAC]

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32 Comments on “Driven and Reviewed: The BIRD...”

  • avatar

    Nice review. Makes no sense for a commuter, if you need it every day it’s much cheaper to just buy one, and no worries about availability. But for occasional fun, pretty slick. If you survive.

    • 0 avatar

      It makes perfect sense as a “last mile” vehicle for people who commute by bus or train, especially if you have a long walk at either end. The logistics would be difficult to manage to ensure availability.

      I’m up for a job that will require me to reverse-commute. I’ve been considering a skateboard or something similar to cut the walk time.

      • 0 avatar

        A dealer I worked at had off-site parking about a mile away. One of my colleagues had an electric razor that he kept in his trunk. He used it to ride the last little bit.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s a decent answer for LA where traffic is so congested and there are enough days out of the year where being exposed to the elements is not an issue. Most parts of the country though have a lot of days where it’s too hot, cold or wet to use one of these.

  • avatar

    Very smart of you to choose a test driver with much fewer accumulated lifetime injuries than his Dear Ol’ Dad.

    “About 90 days ago, approximately 1,000 Chinese-made electric scooters appeared more or less overnight around Santa Monica and Venice in California.”

    That sounds like the opening to an interesting episode of “The Twilight Zone”.

    • 0 avatar

      It was called the People’s Republic of Santa Monica when I lived there back in the early ‘80s, Tom Hayden and Hanoi Jane would have loved the BIRD. That’s the perfect market for scooters. And unicorns.

    • 0 avatar

      And sadly if history is any indicator, 500 of them will catch fire in the first few months, and 1000 of them will end up in a landfill shortly due to poor battery construction.

      Notwithstanding that, the lawsuits will most certainly fly over injuries sustained on BIRD scooters.

      On the plus side, unlike the ridiculous bike sharing programs, one does not need to sit on a BIRD and expose themselves to the wholly unsanitary bike share seats. Lysol wipe, anyone?

      • 0 avatar

        Well once some enterprising individual figures out how to “Jailbreak” BIRDS I anticipate a healthy market in stealing them.

        I have to assume the nightly “Retrieve and recharge” crews are more like Private Garbage Collection in NYC and less the orderly concept people have in mind.

  • avatar

    The whole business model is very similar to what’s happening with app-based dockless rental bikes. It turned into a quick fad in China with a few companies, and then exploded with more than 40 different competitors. Companies with 20 million registered users like Bluegogo still managed to go bankrupt.

    Just look at the graveyard for these things when things take a downturn:

    The bikes have reached DC. We’ll see how long the micromanaging city government is going to sit by and let people dump bikes or scooters all over the city.

  • avatar

    I live in an area that have recently been infested by bikesharing. As I write this, I look out my window and see one abondonded on the sidewalk, in a residential neighborhood. It was in the street yesterday. Just like litterbugs, people dump these things anywhere. Complete nuisences. City coded enforcement… no where to be found. The BIRD is what I would like to give the owners of these companies.

    • 0 avatar
      qwerty shrdlu

      Since there are people going out at night to collect the BIRDs for recharging, perhaps they won’t accumulate in heaps with the shopping carts.
      This expense, plus maintenance (if any) and insurance does change Jack’s profit calculations.

  • avatar

    We have a huge municipal program for regular bikes here in Toronto. Last I heard there were 270 bike stations, 2750 bikes. They are horrid green. You have to return them to a station when you’re through, but not necessarily the one you picked it up at. I think there are similar programs in Ottawa and Montreal, with Montreal being even bigger.. They’re cheap, too. We call it Bike Share. It you ever drove in Toronto traffic you would understand.

    • 0 avatar

      Bike stations are obsolete. Now the same kind of bikes have a GPS and lock that around the rear wheel that is opened with the app. We’ve had them in DC for a few months. Some of the companies are Chinese, and you can find pictures of these things stacked 20 deep on the sidewalks there.

      • 0 avatar

        There’s a similar program with the rear wheel bike lock, but I think it’s operated by the University of Toronto (for staff, presumably).

        Although, having the fixed stands is a better way to ensure the bikes don’t end up somewhere they shouldn’t.

  • avatar

    People cannot manage the purchase of a bike?

    Bird is the word..

    • 0 avatar

      Well everybody’s heard about the bird !
      Bird bird bird, the bird is the word !

      Everybody’s heard about the bird !
      Bird bird bird, the bird is the word !

      Don’t you know about the bird?
      Well everybody’s heard about the bird !

      Surfin Bird – The Trashman

  • avatar

    “He didn’t mention understeer at the limit, which seemed unusual”

    That literally made me laugh. Shocking in the home of Motor Trend that “Understeer at the limit” was not mentioned. Are you sure he was at 9/10ths? Maybe he was only doing 8/10ths.

  • avatar

    Problem with these is the same with all non-enclosed vehicles… I know they say it never rains in Southern California, but it does, as well as everywhere else.

    I’d much rather get more people onto big scooters and motorcycles.

  • avatar

    Several years ago my kids dragged home a Chinese SunL 24v 300w scooter from a garage sale. I dorked around with it a bit and discovered the motor controller was burnt up. I bought a 36v controller and 36v 750w motor from Monster Scooter parts and stretched the frame to put three 12v 18ah batteries on it. Sucker would do 25mph on flat road and could drive uphill on a muddy lawn. All for under $200. Then one of my kids broke it, and then I fried the motor controller. Bummer.

  • avatar

    Don’t you know about the BIRD?

    Everybody’s heard.

  • avatar

    Santa Monica’s response is standard fare for the privileged, unproductive, incompetent and incapable of anything useful leeching classes. Someone comes up with something many find useful. But without cutting the leeches in, nor letting them preen around pretending they are somehow useful for something “hip” like “promoting innovation.” And, lo and behold, the leeches come dragging with the thug army, to shake the innovator down and attempt to insert their worthless selves into the value chain he and his customers have created/discovered.

    BIRD works because an electric scooter can be exterior hardened to stand up to rental abuse much easier than a more fragile bicycle or scooter or car. And is much cheaper per unit. And multiples can be collected nightly for charging with much less effort than a bike or scooter. And because standing on the same floor a “dirty bum” once stood on, is less yucky than sitting on the same seat.

    Stand up scooters can also be thrown in the back of a Miata. Then driven to a parking lot at one end of Melrose (a shopping street in LA which, like most things in LA is a bit long to really walk), ridden around for some hours, thrown in the Miata again and driven back to Venice. And, stand up scooters show off, rather than dirties, your fashionista Melrose pants. Or taken to LAX. Or whatever. BIRD’s pricing model may not be really suited for takeout uses, but you have to start somewhere.

    Mass produced, a stand up electric scooter can be produced very cheaply. Battery capacity/range being the biggest individual cost. The motors are cheap enough you’d have to steal a whole forest of them, to make being a criminal worth vile. And the greater their number, and the larger the area they cover, the less battery you strictly need. As you can always swap one BIRD for another once the first run close to empty. Or BIRD can provide a small incentive for businesses/individuals to chargeshare, so people can drop one off, pick one up. The key being to battle the theft problem by making the darned things too cheap to bother stealing for most people. So that the volume of theft that does occur, won’t break the bank. Bicycles/scooters/cars are much tougher to cheapen and harden to the same extent. Hence; stand up scooters.

    20-25mph beats the heck out of walking. Yet, when combined with the weight of a bicycle, is slow enough to render accidents annoying, rather than some sort of existential threat to large numbers of Americans. Hence fly well under what any legitimate government has any business even being much in the way of aware of. Usain Bolt can run at that speed; which in no way makes sneakers something government needs to “regulate” for “the safety of the children” or some other brainless inanity.

  • avatar

    When does BIRD launch in NYC and finally put the MTA and CitiBike out of business?!? (note I haven’t done the math)

  • avatar

    I doubt that financial payback picture will look nearly as rosy once you factor in the inevitable losses and vandalism.

    • 0 avatar

      If it were really a William Gibson plot, the profit would be from the apps payload.

    • 0 avatar

      I think that Jack’s missing part of the business case calculation: pickup, recharging and drop off of the scooters. The capitol cost of the trucks, labor cost and electricity cost are to push payback out a lot longer than 2 months.

      • 0 avatar
        Jack Baruth

        Not necessarily.

        Wholesale cost of these scooters is paid off in 40-50 hours of use. That’s somewhere between two weeks and a month. After that you have about $40-50 a day to throw at your expenses. If there are a thousand Birds that’s close to 50k a day for your trucks and chargers.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m guessing someone has already built a ramp to jump these off of. The company has to assume that they will be driven like rental cars.

      How safe is the software app? Does it require you to share your pictures, videos, call information and web browser history with the company?

  • avatar

    Funny, I was just in Venice on Sunday meeting an old friend and we grabbed a couple of these to ride down to the beach and enjoy the sunshine before I headed to LAX (by car). They seemed to be all over the place, every block around Abbott Kinney had at least a half-dozen sitting on the sidewalk or near bike racks on the street. I saw quite a few being ridden around the beach area as well.

    This business seems to make sense in touristy areas like this where someone could jump on and have some fun. It seems like more of a novelty to me than a viable means of transportation for people who actually live there and might want to rely on these to get to work on time. If that were the case for me I’d just buy one for a couple of hundred bucks on eBay and charge it in my office and not worry about not finding one when it was time to go home. Then again, a bicycle would serve the same purpose for short trips and could carry some stuff on a rack.

    I had never ridden a small scooter like this and I was surprised at how easy it was to ride. It felt pretty stable but bumps really threw it off course since the tires are tiny and there is no suspension at all.

    There was a sticker on the scooter with rules about wearing helmets which were repeated on the app. I hadn’t planned on riding so I obviously didn’t have one nor did I see any of the doze or so others on these wearing any type of protection.

  • avatar

    I’m a cranky old fart but I think “dockless shared” anything — dockless shared scooters, dockless shared bikes, dockless shared spouses — is an invitation to vandalism, abuse, and severe neighbor annoyance.

    Conventional docked bike share, on the other hand, makes all the sense in the world: the bike charges the user until the bike is safely back in the dock, so the bike you’re looking to borrow is always right there waiting for you where the app said it would be, usually charged up if it’s electric…and the dock is a bit of
    a social gathering space where you can make new friends too. (Plus those docked bikes are crazy durable, though generally underbraked.)

    In parts of China and the UK (I’m looking at you, Manchester), dockless bike sharing ended up with bikes kept locked on people’s private property, bikes thrown in the canal, bikes parked in the middle of the damn sidewalk, etc.

    Can’t see that it would be any different with scooters.

    “If men were angels, no docks would be necessary,” or something to that effect.

    In its defense, I witnessed dockless bike sharing performing just as advertised in San Diego’s Gaslight district, so maybe dockless mobility sharing can work in areas where the locals aren’t…you know…chavvy.

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