Anyone who lives in a city where electric scooters are rampant has probably seen how dangerous those devices can be when they move from streets to sidewalks. Sidewalk scooter riders aren’t only way more likely to injure pedestrians and themselves when they go off-road, they also look—let’s be real—incredibly lame while they’re causing all that carnage. Since that’s clearly not enough to deter some of the more dick-ish scooter riders, the e-scooter giant Bird has come up with another plan: annoying its riders into staying on the road.
That’s the gist of the new “Smart Sidewalk Protection” system that the company rolled out on Wednesday morning, which is essentially an on-scooter GPS system that’s designed to track whether that scoot is on a sidewalk or any “other indications of unsafe operation.”
Bird says it will be able to detect sidewalk riding “almost instantly” with this new system. When it happens, the rider will get a phone notification letting them know they’re uh, on the literal sidewalk, and the scooter itself will emit an incessant “audible alert” alongside that notification. Bird doesn’t describe what that alert might sound like—others have said it will consist of annoying beeps, which makes sense: we’ve seen other e-scooter companies test devices that angrily beep at riders when they’re caught on sidewalks, too.
In Bird’s case, if neither the cellphone alert nor the beeping does the trick (not to mention the piles and piles of research pointing to how dangerous sidewalk-bound scootering can be), the scooter will simply just slow down and stop.
Bird explained the nuts and bolts behind this new sidewalk-tracking tech—which is officially named “ZED-F9R”, and was developed alongside a Swiss company called “u-blox”—on its own blog. In a nutshell, these trackers come bundled in a GNSS receiver (essentially a souped-up GPS) that processes data from the scooter it’s attached to, including the scoot’s acceleration, spatial orientation, and wheel speed. These get compared against a pre-determined geofence outline of a particular city that gets constructed from satellite imagery, or cite-sourced geographic data.
The end result, Bird promises, is a sidewalk-detecting scooter system that’s sleek and precise—unlike some of the other solutions we’ve seen pitched by its e-scooter computers. Last month, the Swedish mobility startup Voi announced it would start strapping smart cameras equipped to “see and recognize situations that are hazardous” to the front of scooters in its fleet in an attempt to cut down on local e-scooter injuries. The Ford-owned e-scooter operator Spin, meanwhile, announced plans last year to add a slew of cameras and sensor arrays to its vehicles to cut down on bad driver behavior.
We still can’t say for sure whether Bird’s cameraless approach is the better bet; the company has only just started piloting their “micromobility module” on scooters in Milwaukee and San Diego. Bird also noted that it has plans for “a broader rollout” in 2022, which includes a debut for riders in Madrid.