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Episode 9: Crossing Paths with Micromobility

By Brinley Macnamara
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Show Notes

The sudden appearance of ride share e-scooters ignited what some call a transportation revolution and what others call a disastrous experiment in unregulated mobility. So what’s behind our love hate relationship with the (in)famous e-scooter?


Full text of transcript

Dr. Tracy Sanders (00:02):

The Bird Graveyard is a whole Instagram account that is devoted to destroying ride share scooters. It’s a fairly popular account and it’s won some awards, but that’s not why I brought it up. I brought it up because I talk a lot in my paper about public buy-in, about how, when you’re going to introduce a new form of transportation like this, that really does affect everybody in the community. You need to get public buy-in. I just wanted to demonstrate how vehement the opposition to e-scooters can be sometimes, the things that people have done to vandalize these things are crazy. They throw them off buildings, they set them on fire. There’s been a big problem with them ending up in bodies of water. People cut the brake lines, they spray paint them so the QR codes can’t be used. It seems like there are endless ways to destroy these things, but why would people want to do that if they had bought into the idea of them? If you buy in you may actually want one on the corner in case you need to take one to get to the bus stop or something.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (01:17):

Hello and welcome to MITRE’s Tech Futures Podcast. I’m your host Brinley Macnamara. At MITRE, we offer a unique vantage point and objective insights that we share in the public interest. And in this podcast series, we showcase emerging technologies that will affect the government and our nation in the future. Today, I’m going to tell you about Dr. Tracy Sanders’ recent MITRES investigation into an emerging mode of transportation known and micromobility. And after you get the low down on micromobility, I’m going to discuss how micromobility will interact with other users of our roads, like pedestrians, cars, and even the autonomous vehicle. But before we dive in, I want to say a huge thank you to Dr. Kris Rosfjord, the Tech Futures Innovation Area Leader in MITRE’s Research and Development program. This episode would not have happened without her support. Now, without further ado, I bring you MITRE’s Tech Futures Podcast, episode number nine.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (02:27):

The sudden appearance of rideshare e-scooters on our roads, bike lanes and sidewalks has forced both public officials and private citizens to confront the extreme difficulty of incorporating lighter weight modes and mobility into our car-centric ground transportation system. And according to Dr. Craig Wanke, MITRE’s Innovation Area Leader for Aviation and Transportation, there is a collective name for these small yet polarizing forms of transportation.

Dr. Craig Wanke (02:52):

Micromobility is really refers to small lightweight vehicles like electric scooters and bikes, bike share, e-bikes and other small things you see tooling around, and these can be shared like the scooters you see scattered around Washington D.C., Or at least I see a scattered around Washington D.C., or you can own them. In case of e-bikes particularly, there’s a good bit of private ownership in that way.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (03:18):

Now, while some forms of micromobility, like the plain old bicycle have been around for quite a while, the near overnight deployment of a much more internet agey form of transportation technology, dockless e-scooters that could be rented through a mobile app, took everyone by surprise. In a nutshell, here’s what happened. In 2017, without looking for permission from any city officials, Bird and Lime launched their e-scooter ride sharing services and ever since both companies have been locked in battles with dozens of municipalities as public officials try to define what forgiving these companies will look like. But before we talk about why e-scooter ride sharing needs quite a bit of forgiveness, I want to talk about the major upside of e-scooter ride sharing, which rests on the service offering a solution to a subborn problem in our modern transportation world that you’ve probably experienced, but might not have known had a name until now.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (04:11):

What is the last mile problem in transportation and how can micromobility help to alleviate that problem?

Dr. Tracy Sanders (04:18):

So one big challenge in public transportation is how to get riders the last little bit between the bus stops or train stations, to their houses, to their places of work, to the places that they need to go.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (04:35):

That’s Dr. Tracy Sanders talking, she’s a Human Centered Engineering Lead in MITRE Labs and was the Principal Investigator on the micromobility project.

Dr. Tracy Sanders (04:43):

So, that last little bit is always a challenge because you can’t have the stop for mass transportation everywhere. And then building more subway is really expensive. Buying more buses is expensive. E-scooters on the other hand are very cheap and you can deploy them at those hubs. And then they can be used to go a little further so that they’re extending the existing transportation system a little bit.

Elizabeth Karpinski (05:17):

Most of what you’re paying in gasoline or electricity, if you have an electric car, is to move the car, not to move you.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (05:25):

That’s Elizabeth Karpinski talking. She’s a Senior Data Scientist in MITRE Labs who recently co-authored a paper with Dr. Sanders on micromobility. She’s also utterly fascinated by the inefficiencies of our ground transportation system.

Elizabeth Karpinski (05:39):

So think if you were ordering something, say you’ve ordered something online and you are paying…say 96% of your bill was just for shipping. That’s kind of what driving a car is like, because your car might weigh ten or twenty times what you do. And it’s all that weight that you’re paying to move, not just paying to move you. In contrast, an e-scooter is going to be much, much lighter than you. So rather than paying to move an entire car plus you, mostly you’re just paying to move yourself, which is what you want to be paying for.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (06:16):

And while we’re on the topic of paying for gasoline, I should note that the lighter weight battery powered electric scooter is also much more energy efficient than the average gasoline powered car. A hundred times more energy efficient to be exact. This means that micromobility is also a more environmentally friendly mode of transportation, especially for those last mile trips, the majority of which, studies show, we take by ourselves. Not withstanding, there are two sides to every story and for a podcast that began with a graphic description of all the ways that public has taken their transportation frustrations out on e-scooters, we’ve certainly done quite a bit of praising them. So how have e-scooters gotten such a bad rap?

Brinley Macnamara (host) (06:58):

Well, according to Dr. Sanders, the answer lies in her study of how other ground transportation users, namely cars, pedestrians, and even other micromobility riders, like bicyclists, have interacted with the e-scooter. She refers to these transportation users as bystanders of e-scooters. And while we bystanders may adore new and disruptive innovations when it comes to the latest gadgets, entertainment, or even our own indulgences in e-scooter technology, we are quick to turn on new and disruptive transportation innovations when they begin to violate our precious norms for predictability and by extension the safety of our roadways.

Dr. Tracy Sanders (07:37):

I think that traffic, as it happens, takes place based on a bunch of rules and norms. So there’s rules that are set out for us by governing agencies and then there’s norms, the ways that we behave, that are expected. We use those to be predictable. And one of the important components of safety in this whole big transportation infrastructure is being predictable. E-scooters, like I’ve said, are new. There aren’t norms really built around them yet. Another issue is that e-scooter riders can mode switch, in some places, this is perfectly legal where they can behave like pedestrians on the sidewalk and then they can rapidly switch and behave more like cyclists in the street. That can be very confusing for everybody around them.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (08:37):

Now, I’m sure you want to believe that your teenage self entered driver said with an open mind and left with a perfect understanding of the rules that govern the safety of our roadways, along with an unwavering commitment to following these rules a hundred percent of the time. But for most of us, the day-to-day reality of driving is much more complicated than following the letter of the law to a T. In fact, in many driving scenarios, we are more heavily influenced by social norms than we are by the law. One classic norms-trumping-laws example is treating the leftmost passing lane on a highway as the quote-unquote “fast lane,” despite this behavior being banned in most states. So much for driver’s ed.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (09:16):

Of course, human transportation users have become accustomed to the weird mixture of rules and social norms that govern our roads, from the cardinal rule of stopping at an intersection when there’s a red light to social norms that govern the routine violation and passing lane laws. As long as we are used to them, we can easily adjust our driving behavior to conform to these weird human subtleties, allowing us to strike a balance between safety and efficiency. But as Dr. Sanders noted, the rapid deployment and novelty of e-scooters has meant that e-scooterists have had to make up their own rules, which have been inconsistent at best, leaving bystanders without any norms to predict have these micromobility users will behave, provoking feelings of helplessness, and infuriation at the utter lawlessness of the e-scooterist.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (10:03):

So how dangerous is it to be a bystander of micromobility?

Dr. Tracy Sanders (10:08):

That is pretty hard to say. I think it is fairly safe, but we don’t have standardized estimates of accidents and injuries. So we don’t really know how dangerous it is. We can’t quantify the risk at this point. But from what we do know, it is fairly safe. And the evidence that we have for that are a very small percentage of bystander injuries, in the injury studies that are available, are bystanders. It’s mainly riders who are being injured and there are almost zero bystander fatalities.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (10:49):

Dr. Sanders went on to say that of the 36 e-scooter related fatalities that have been reported, only two of those fatalities were of a bystander. The rest were e-scooterists. And of the e-scooterist fatalities, the vast majority were due to collisions with cars, but the unpredictability of e-scooterists might not only be a problem for human drivers.

Elizabeth Karpinski (11:09):

When we talk about an autonomous vehicle, the image that probably comes to mind is a self-driving car, but there’s a lot of gray area in between a car with some extra assistance features and a self-driving car. So autonomous vehicles sort of is a nice broader category to cover everything in between. A car that’s maybe not necessarily self-driving, but is maybe self lane keeping or self emergency braking.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (11:38):

Autonomous vehicles, or AVs for short, and all of the interesting safety, ethical, and technological issues they bring up is a ginormous topic that is way too big to handle in this single podcast episode. That said, in order to understand the challenges that come with AV and micromobility interactions, it’s important to quickly review how AVs learned to drive in the first place, a process that is done via machine learning, which, for the purposes of this extremely high level podcast, boils down to the AV running software that has been trained to know how to drive. But a software-based driver is only as good as the training data that was used to teach it how to drive. And the acquisition of really good training data has been a huge sticking point for this industry, particularly when it comes to acquiring training data that adequately captures the increasingly diverse forms of micromobility, such as e-scooters.

Elizabeth Karpinski (12:30):

So the lack of training data is a big concern because these autonomous systems depend on that training data to understand what objects there are in their environment and how they need to respond to them. So an autonomous vehicle that’s unfamiliar with, the concept of an e-scooter, or perhaps only knows about the manual like Razor kick scooters, that aren’t motorized, might mistake what that object is and not be able to behave correctly when it’s in proximity to it.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (13:04):

Ironically, while we humans’ propensity to bend traffic laws to comply with social norms is often cited as a major risk to ground transportation safety, the AVs’ inability to bend rules to adjust unexpected behavior from, say, an e-scooterist, may also pose a risk to the safety of our future transportation system. This is a well known problem in the research community. So well known, in fact, that there are entire research groups dedicated to investigating how to incorporate the idiosyncrasies of human driving norms into AV software. Moreover, AVs lack the ability to comply with another human driving norm that is critical for safety.

Dr. Craig Wanke (13:42):

One of the ways that pedestrians make contact with drivers is with eye contact. When you’re about to cross the street, you look, you see, does that person notice me? You can’t do that, at least currently, with an automated vehicle. So what does that mean for how those sorts of mundane interactions have to go? Of course the AV can’t necessarily anticipate what a pedestrian is going to do based on body language or that sort of thing, which where a human driver might be able to do that. And so there’ll have to be some kind of a compensation developed to handle these situations.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (14:20):

And according to Dr. Sanders, the e-scooterists’ behavior that disrupts bystanders today may be a harbinger for this impending AV communication problem.

Dr. Tracy Sanders (14:28):

When we’re all out there in this infrastructure, we communicate with each other a lot, using body language and using our faces and our eyes. That’s really difficult to see with e-scooter riders. You can’t necessarily see their faces and their bodies are being used to pilot. So they don’t necessarily use body language that drivers and other users can understand.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (14:56):

It’s hard to believe that a thing as simple as eye contact could be a roadblock for technologies like the autonomous vehicle and e-scooter, but in another twist of irony our most basic and perhaps most human form of communication may be the hardest for technology to replace. My most surprising takeaway from my conversations with Dr. Sanders, Dr. Wanke, and Elizabeth was just how much of our ground transportation system is shaped by the weird human things, like eye contact and social norms, that are perhaps more familiar to social scientists than to engineers. We can do better than Bird Graveyard. Thus, in order to realize the best of what micromobility has to offer, we’re going to have to do a better job of aligning micromobility to all road users, from the e-scooter’s earliest adopters to it’s most disgruntled of bystanders and everyone, humans and machines, in between.

Brinley Macnamara (host) (15:52):

This show was written by me. It was produced and edited by myself and my new co-host Eliza Mace, Dr. Kris Rosfjord and Dr. Heath Farris. Our guests were Dr. Tracy Sanders, Dr. Craig Wanke, and Elizabeth Karpinski. The music in this episode was brought to you by Claude Signet, Ooyy, Arthur Benson, and Truvio. We’d like to give a special thanks to Dr. Kris Rosfjord, the Technology Futures Innovation Area Leader, for all her support. You can learn more about Dr. Sanders’ micromobility research by going to Copyright 2022 MITRE PRS # 21-3312, February 8th, 2022. MITRE: solving problems for a safer world.

Meet the Guests

Dr. Tracy Sanders

Dr. Tracy Sanders holds a PhD in Applied Experimental and Human Factors Psychology and an MS in Modeling and Simulation from the University of Central Florida. Her research interests include human-automation interaction, user-centered design, and artificial intelligence. Tracy uses empirical methods to solve complex problems and advocate for the needs of the user in a variety of domains across the DoD and beyond, including aviation, autonomous systems, and accessibility. In addition to her role as a human-centered engineering lead at MITRE, Tracy is a part-time professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

Dr. Craig Wanke

Dr. Craig Wanke is the Chief Engineer for National Airspace System Evolution at the MITRE Corporation’s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development. He earned a Ph.D. in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1993, and then joined MITRE, where he has focused on decision support systems for pilots, air traffic controllers, and air traffic managers. Several tools developed under this work have been successfully deployed as part of the U.S. Traffic Flow Management System. He is also responsible for selecting and directing MITRE’s internal research and development program in aviation and transportation, aimed at developing innovative solutions to critical U.S. national problems in those areas. Dr. Wanke is an Associate Fellow of AIAA, an associate editor of the Journal of Air Transportation, and currently serves on the organizing committee for the U.S./Europe ATM Research and Development Seminar series. He has authored more than 100 conference and journal papers on aviation and air traffic management topics.

Elizabeth Karpinski

Elizabeth Karpinski is a Senior Data Scientist in the Model Based Analytics department of MITRE labs. Her focus is on mathematical representations of complex systems and probabilistic analysis. Elizabeth has been leading micromobility research projects at MITRE for the last couple of years to answer tough questions on the safety and infrastructure requirements needed to support multimodal transport. She received her B.S. in Industrial Engineering and her M.S. in Operations Analytics & Management from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.