E-scooter players stuck at legal red light in Ireland, but revving to go

31 Jul 2019

Image: © skyNext/Stock.adobe.com

With so much confusion over the legality of e-scooters in Ireland, some of the biggest companies in ride-sharing are revving to get involved.

You’ve seen them criss-crossing the country’s major urban centres, sometimes at a blistering pace, but e-scooters are getting bogged down in regulations. Despite booming in popularity and numbers in Silicon Valley and major cities across the globe over the past few years, e-scooters are only now starting to become more commonplace in Ireland as manufacturers enter the market.

Back in 2015, I tested one of the first Irish entries into the mobility market, the e-Skoot. While the company has since shut down, at the time that particular model of scooter cost more than €1,000. Now, entries such as Xiaomi and SEAT’s collaboration with Segway are about half the price, with costs falling as the technology gets cheaper and more readily available.

Yet one problem remains for anyone in Ireland thinking of buying one: they’re illegal. Under the Road Traffic Act 1961, e-scooters find themselves stuck under the umbrella term of a ‘mechanically propelled vehicle’. This means that any driver would need to follow the same rules as someone who owns a car or motorcycle, which means getting the vehicle taxed and insured.

Decision expected ‘shortly’

Things get even more tricky when you take into account e-scooters that act as hybrids, with foot propulsion being used as well as pure electric power. Right now, An Garda Síochána are stopping e-scooter riders seemingly at random, with some I’ve spoken to saying they’ve yet to be stopped on their daily commutes.

However, the law may be changing in the near future. Last May, the Government said that it had set the Road Safety Authority (RSA) the mission of carrying out research on e-scooter safety and whether the ban should be lifted. At the time, a decision was expected to be made “shortly” but, in the months since, the situation seems to be largely the same.

Speaking with Siliconrepublic.com, a spokesperson for the Department of Transport said that the RSA had submitted its report in June and it is currently being considered by officials and stakeholders before being submitted to Minister Shane Ross. When the findings of that report will be published remain to be seen.

But the expectations are that something will have to give. Not wanting to see itself as behind the tech curve, the Government is missing out on a market expected to surpass $41bn by 2030. Then there’s the fact that if it is to end sales of new diesel and petrol cars by 2030 under its Climate Action Plan, then e-scooters might be a way to get commuters out of their cars and into electric transportation.

How to launch e-scooters and influence governments

Despite the legal confusion, e-scooter firms are not afraid of pushing into the market here, with one of the biggest e-mobility companies – Lime – already establishing an office in Dublin, with not a single one of its scooters on Irish roads.

Other players are eager to get going here, but are waiting to get the green light with a change in the law. One such company is Voi, a Swedish start-up founded just one year ago. In this short space of time, the company has formed a belt of 30 locations heading south-west across Europe, stretching from Tampere in Finland down to Malaga in Spain.

The company’s head of PR, Kristina Hunter Nilsson, told Siliconrepublic.com that the company will “obviously comply with the rules [regarding legality]” and will do what it can “to influence opinion”.

“I think at the end of the day, a lot of cities have got the commitment for clean air and I think that’s one of the drives [for having e-scooters],” she said.

“We’re having discussions with different stakeholders to share best practices and how we can help to hopefully speed up the process in Ireland so that we can launch e-scooters there.”

The infrastructure problem

In terms of growth, Voi has gone from having its first e-scooter sharing service launched in Stockholm in 2018, to seeing its vehicles clock up a total of 5m kilometres and bringing its staff numbers to around 600, comprising both full- and part-time employees.

Explaining what led the start-up to consider Ireland, Hunter Nilsson said it has data that shows Irish tourists are using its scooters quite frequently across Europe.

One major obstacle – quite literally in some cases – is the lack of infrastructure found in Ireland when it comes to any form of transport that isn’t a car or a bus. In Dublin alone, campaigners have long fought for a greater number of dedicated cycle lanes in a city recently deemed incredibly unfriendly to two-wheeled forms of transport by international visitors.

This, Hunter Nilsson said, will not prevent it from establishing its services here if e-scooters get the green light in Ireland. “Stockholm doesn’t have the best bike infrastructure either. But I think people are more open to adopt the change, so they try out something new and it’s embedded better,” she said, adding that a large uptake can encourage cities to adapt to this rather new form of transport.

Once again with the overhanging issue of legality, Hunter Nilsson wasn’t able to say which Irish cities the company would be looking to set up in. However, Voi typically looks for places with more than 200,000 people, leaving only Dublin and Cork as options.

One thing for sure is that if the regulations change, Voi will have plenty of competition as some of the biggest names in micromobility transportation – such as Uber and Lime – will no doubt be keen to glide their way into the market.

One fish in a large pond

This, seemingly, doesn’t concern Voi. “At the end of the day we’re all in the same pond,” Hunter Nilsson said. “If you look at the actual scale of the market, it’s huge. I think we’re just scratching the future of the scope of micromobility.”

Of course, not every city has been so welcoming of e-scooters. The mayor of Paris recently announced a ban on companies such as Voi and others from having their e-scooters parked on pavements, following on from a ban that prevented them being ridden in pedestrian areas. Right now, there are 20,000 e-scooters on the streets of the French capital, but by the end of the year this is expected to double. So could we ever see a similar situation arise in Ireland?

“We’ve gotten used to cars, so why not e-scooters?” Hunter Nilsson said. “I’ve been to Dublin a few times, the traffic jams are horrendous there.”

In the meantime, companies such as Voi are waiting at a red light to start bringing their e-scooters to Ireland. But given the pace of political change in this country, they might be waiting a while.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic