In January 2020, Richard Corbett was ready to take a break from e-scooters.
After two years of working at e-scooter startup Bird, Corbett decided to take a sabbatical with his wife and two-year-old son.
He had time. Unlike the rest of Europe, scooters were banned from both roads and pavements in the UK. And although Corbett had been pushing the government to change the law, legislation moves slowly and e-scooters were not high up the priorities list of a country looking down the barrel of Brexit.
Corbett didn’t see any chance of any legislative change happening until 2021 at the very earliest, so he figured he’d take his chance to travel the world while his son was still pre-school age. Both Corbett and his wife quit their jobs in January, the plan being to renovate and rent out the house before setting off for adventure in April.
“Lo and behold, that never happened,” Corbett told Insider in an interview.
What did happen is the UK government fast-tracked legislation to make rental e-scooters legal for city trials in June 2020, galvinized by demand for more transport options that didn’t involve packing people into enclosed carriages and buses during a pandemic.
It was just ahead of that legislation going through that Corbett rejoined the industry, taking a job as Swedish e-scooter startup Voi as regional general manager for the UK, Ireland and Benelux.
“Voi for me was always the market leader on a number of key initiatives around safety, sustainability, and had the best reputation,” said Corbett. “When thinking about who understood [the] UK best, it wasn’t an American operator. It wasn’t someone 6,000 miles away. It was someone who was European and had the best reputation, and that’s why I went with Voi.”
Voi has pitched to supply UK cities, winning 21 licenses and netting 106,000 monthly active riders. It has logged 544,000 rides which together tot up to 691,000 miles. Corbett told Insider Voi has snagged 60% of client market share in the UK.
Even with a government lockdown and winter weather keeping Brits indoors, the usage of its scooters is staying “resilient.”
With 2020 behind us and vaccine rollouts promising to gradually ease the frequency of lockdowns, Insider spoke to Corbett about how he plans to keep up momentum and help e-scooters stick in the UK.
Cashing in on dockless flexibility and striking deals with local transport
When Corbett got stuck back into the scooter business there were weekly calls with the UK Department for Transport (DfT), which Corbett is still attending regularly. “It was a collaborative effort between industry and government and the aim was,’ let’s get people moving as quickly as possible,'” Corbett said.
Corbett said the fact e-scooters are dockless gave them a particular edge as the pandemic progressed, with fluctuating lockdown measures changing people’s travel habits.
“Because we’re a dockless service we can change our vehicle distribution to where the demand is. And right now we don’t want to be encouraging anybody to go to a shopping center, to go to a leisure center. So those routes the distribution of those parking locations have moved. What we want to do is encourage people to go to and from hospital, to and from the train station, to supermarket or a vaccination center,” he said.
“We’re going where the need is, because we’re dockless we have that flexibility,” he added.
The current UK trials are due to culminate in an end-of-trial report in October this year, and in the meantime Voi will be trying to make the most of the momentum it’s got.
“We will be growing interactions with public transport, we will be investing in safer and smarter vehicles, and better parking structure,” said Corbett.
“We’ll be investing in integration with bus, rail, etcetera,” he said. Corbett thinks hooked the scooters up to other travel options is vital because most people won’t travel a full journey on a scooter. “People aren’t going to travel exclusively on scooters, no matter how great they are.
He thinks Voi can pitch itself to city authorities as a way to alleviate strained transport networks.
“Cities are under a lot of pressure, particularly with COVID, budget cuts, mounting to-do lists, so we’re providing as a commercial partner an opportunity to take some of the transport issues away from them,” he said.
Investing in tech to stop people ‘spooning’ on scooters
As more people start to use scooters in the UK, Voi is having to square off against new safety issues. It had to suspend a trial in September after locals complained Voi users were weaving in and out of traffic.
Corbett said the two main things the company aims to address in 2021 are: people riding on the pavement, and doubling-riding — or as he put it, “people spooning on a scooter.”
Corbett said the company is looking into a variety of technologies to combat double-riding, including weight sensors, gyroscopes, and AI camera technology.
The company is also pumping money into features to encourage safety. Voi users can take a “helmet selfie” to prove they’re wearing a helmet and gain loyalty points to later convert into discounted rides — although some users have been trying to trick the AI that determines whether users are in fact wearing a helmet by putting up their hoodie.
Corbett said the Voi is also going to be focusing on upgrading the scooters themselves. The company in January unveiled its latest model the Voiager 4, which it plans to roll out to cities in Spring.
The V4 could play a part in cementing Voi’s relationship with local authorities, as it comes equipped with air and noise pollution sensors which could feed data back to local governments.
Corbett thinks the pollution sensors could yield benefits for consumers in future. “We can also start to do some whizzy things in our software over time, where we could theoretically reduce the price of scooters or remove unlock fees in areas of high pollution, to get people out of those areas,” he said.
Through troduct upgrades, partnerships, and foiling anti-social riders Voi is hoping to turn its UK debut into a permanent feature. Corbett will have his work cut out for him competing against rivals like Lime and his previous employer Bird. To help him unwind, he’s got the lockdown staple of TV and film streaming, as he told Insider he’s a big fan of Cobra Kai.