How safe is the Nimbus? Safety should be a concern when using any small motor vehicles like scooters, motorcycles, or even small cars. While it’s impossible to give an exact answer before having a substantial number of our vehicles on the road to extract data from, I believe we can achieve a level of safety comparable to the average car. Allow me to break this down.

First, the location and manner in which the vehicle is used can be more important for safety than the vehicle. Using any motor vehicle in an urban environment responsibly reduces risk substantially. A good example of this is the safety record of miniature cars in France. These vehicles were involved with less fatalities per vehicle than regular cars in France, despite not having requirements for airbags or strict ones for crash-worthiness. There are many speculated reasons for this. One is that the speed of these vehicles is limited to 45km/h which means they are for the most part used only inside cities in a responsible manner. Motorcycles here in the US are substantially more dangerous than cars partially because they are used primarily for recreation and this selects for risky behavior (I used to ride). But even so, motorcycles are much safer in the city than in rural areas. In places where motorcycles are used primarily as a utilitarian transportation tool, they can be as safe as other modes of transportation. For examples, motorcycles make up just over 51% of traffic fatalities in Taiwan but also 46% of traffic in Taipei and 57% in Kaohsiung, two of the largest cities [1]. In Vietnam, motorcycles make up 80% of traffic, yet about 70% of fatal traffic accidents in 2001, even without a mandatory helmet law [1]. These examples show the safety of small motor vehicle safety can be comparable to cars under the right conditions, even without any safety technology.

Beyond encouraging the responsible use of our vehicles in urban areas, we also use proven safety technology found on cars. We use ABS and combined braking which have been shown to reduce severe accidents by 34-42% in motorcycles in Europe.  Also standard are airbags, seat belts, and a high strength steel and aluminum structure all of which cannot be installed in motorcycles or scooters but have been getting better on cars and help immensely in the event of a crash. We are also equipping our vehicles with sensors  to automatically warn the driver of dangerous situations and decelerate the vehicle in an emergency. Even relatively old  driver assistance systems like Advanced Emergency Braking and Lane Departure Warning have been shown to reduce accidents by 53% and have much greater potential as they piggy back off autonomous driving technology and get much better over time. In fact, I predict that in several years, any small motor vehicle that uses the latest driver assistance system will be comparably safe if not safer than cars of today as 94% of traffic accidents are due to human error.

As many motorcyclists and bikers know, many if not most two wheeled vehicle accidents happen with cars because the car drivers did not see them [2][3]. With a car-like shell around the vehicle and highly visible front LED lights, we substantially improve the vehicle’s visibility. Another reason, I believe from personally experience, for the smaller gap between motorcycle and car safety in countries with heavy motorcycle usage like Taiwan and Vietnam is that traffic tends to be faster and more aggressive in the west. This places a much higher demand on motorcycle skills during an accident-avoidance maneuver. A car driver is only limited by their awareness and reaction time to slam on the brakes and swerve to avoid an accident. A motorcycle rider must properly balance front and rear brake forces and counter-steer in a split second. One of the significant innovations we have made is a control system we call Nimbus Balance which allows the drivers of our vehicle to drive it the exact same way they would a car, while the vehicle behaves like a motorcycle. With three wheels, the vehicle will still remain stable if traction is lost. This should allow almost any driver to operate our vehicle more safely than a seasoned rider can operate their motorcycle.

Frontal airbag and restraint simulation (courtesy of University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute)

One very important aspect of safety the automotive industry doesn’t like to draw attention to is the safety of those outside of the car. In 2019, there were 6,590 pedestrian deaths in the US. That is the highest it’s ever been in 30 years - an increase of 60% in just the past 10 years [4]. One of the main proposed reasons  for this safety crisis is an increase in the number of SUVs [4]. SUVs and other “light trucks” are twice as likely to kill a pedestrian and their numbers increased by 44% in the past 10 years [4]. There has been an arms race of car up-sizing and pedestrians are paying the price for it. Much lighter vehicles have been shown to be associated with a significant reduction in risk to pedestrians. For example, auto rickshaws (Tuk Tuks) in Mumbai and Bangalore were less likely to cause pedestrian fatalities than cars, almost 4x less in the case of Bangalore [5]. It is also logical to assume that if a number of people just replaced their cars with vehicles that were significantly narrower with all else equal, the chances of the narrower vehicles striking pedestrians is also reduced significantly. The frontal shape of vehicles is an important contributor to pedestrian safety [6]. We took this into careful consideration when designing our vehicle. Our vehicles also come standard with sensors that can detect pedestrians and apply braking automatically.

Pedestrian impact simulation, showing the pedestrian's head moving away from the direct impact from our vehicle's front shape (Courtesy University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute)

There are many ways to be safe in a motor vehicle. Enclosing yourself in the cage of a massive car is one way but this comes at the expense of others and our future generations. It comes at the expense of the livability of our cities, the environment, and vulnerable road users like pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists. Through encouraging the safe use of our vehicles in urban areas and the use of safety technology not found on other small vehicles, I believe we can achieve an unprecedented level of safety not only for users of small vehicles but for everyone else on the road too.

Another point I want to make, which may be controversial, is the following: any reduction, if at all, in average life expectancy from regularly using even a motorcycle in a safe manner is likely to be offset by the hours you get back in saving time during commutes and spent looking for parking. An average 10% or 6 minute reduction in driving and parking time a day adds up to 36 hours a year. Even if you owned a motorcycle, the most dangerous small motor vehicle and lived in San Francisco, the city most dangerous for motorcycles in California, you still only have a 0.01% chance of dying in a motorcycle accident in a year*. If you are at the average age of 38 years old, this is a reduction in life expectancy of 39 hours a year, which approximately cancels out the time you add back to your life in saving time on commutes and parking. The average driver in the major US coastal cities and Chicago spend more than 70 hours a year just looking for parking and about another 90 hours from congestion, so a 36 hour a year saving seems conservative. The fatality rate of 0.01% also includes all motorcycle owners, who are on average operate their vehicles much more aggressively than car drivers and are not protected by anything except their riding gear. So it seems in all but the worse case the time you get back from faster commutes and parking searches outweighs the statistical risks of using a small motor vehicle.

*Using the TransBASE data, there were 12 motorcycle fatalities in the 5 years between 1/1/2015 and 1/1/2020, or 2.4 per year on average. Total number of registered motorcycles is 21,700, giving a fatality rate of 0.01% per registered motorcycle per year.