New technology could slow scooter riders' roll when they ride on sidewalks

Stay off the sidewalks, stay on the streets. That’s the message the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is sending to scooter companies. Electric scooters are becoming a more popular way of getting around, and the companies are trying to make them safer.

Although you can find plenty of these scooters parked on the sidewalks, it's illegal to ride them on the sidewalks. But you can see them cruising on the sidewalks pretty regularly. 

Now companies behind the micro transit vehicles are showing off their new tech aimed at keeping the sidewalks safe.            

San Francisco's streets bustle with activity, cars, walkers, bicyclists and now scooters all sharing the same roadways. SFMTA says scooters are part of the city's transit option future, but at the same time the agency is working to make the sidewalks safer for pedestrians by making sure the scooter companies keep their vehicles moving on the streets, not on the sidewalks. 

"Scooters also are scary and can be hazardous for pedestrians on sidewalks," said SFMTA Director Jeffrey Tumlin. "Critically important not on sidewalks. Particularly for older adults, and people with disabilities."

Disability advocate Nicole Bohn says she is not opposed to scooters, but says they belong on the road. She herself was hit by a scooter which broke her ankle. The scooters can reach speeds of 15 miles per hour or more. Too fast she says, for sidewalks. 

"That is part of how I was injured. They were going far too fast, and because of that my bones broke," said Bohn.

The three major scooter companies; Lime, Scoot and Spin are now unveiling their new technology aimed at keeping the scooters off the sidewalks. The systems allow the scooters to buzz along in the green lane, but slow to 5 miles per hour if they cross onto the sidewalk. 

Lime and Scoot demonstrated a highly accurate GPS system. Scoot says its system is accurate to within about 4 inches. "What that means is when you ride the scooter up onto the sidewalk it detects that change using GPS, and then it slows down and stops," said Jonathan Grubb from Scoot.

Spin is taking another approach, using a camera capable of telling the difference between the sidewalk and the road, a system the company says it about 90% accurate. 

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"So a camera-based system using computer vision and AI is going to better learn the algorithm of what infrastructure looks like in San Francisco and is going to be able to adapt and scale city wide," said Phuong Bui from Spin.

The companies have already rolled out their safety innovations on a limited number of their scooters. The SFMTA says at this point there's no deadline for their entire fleets to be equipped with the sidewalk detection technology.