Why This?
Allow me explain why I chose to work on a new type of vehicle. After all, automobiles and motorcycles have been around for more than a century and have served us well, right? These form factors have remained for the most part unchanged yet the world today is very much different from the turn of the century and the differences will only grow with time.

Today, the planet is supporting 4 times the amount of people compared to when the automobile was invented. As a species, we have grown our carbon emissions by twenty times from the last turn of the century. Transportation is the largest or one of the top contributors in many countries [1]. Our cities have also become very crowded. Commuters spend an extra 153 hours a week on the road in 2019 because of congestion in the world’s 20 slowest cities, which are mostly in Europe and the Americas [2].  That’s an extra 9 days of awake time that could be spent on hobbies and with family and friends.  The typical automobile on the road is only used by one or two people and weighs a few thousand pounds (and growing). Does it make sense to use the car so much when we are in a climate crisis and collectively squander away billions of hours away each year?

Turning cars electric is a huge step for reducing carbon from transportation. Electric cars that are manufactured and charged with electricity from clean powerplants can reduce carbon to a third over similar gasoline cars [3]. However, just turning cars electric cannot change transportation fast enough to meet our targets for reducing carbon emissions. 75% of countries that have committed to the Paris Agreement are already behind [4].  Scientists are warning us of "untold human suffering" if we don't substantially reduce our emissions. Electric cars are still too expensive for many and they require the same large amount of energy to move as gasoline cars. Total energy generated from powerplants that will take decades to become even 50% renewable [5].  We need to do better than just switching to electric versions of our cars.

To address the urban congestion problem, some are creating more layers to the roads we have by building underground or flying transportation. Besides being costly to operate and build infrastructure for, I don’t think they will work for the majority of travel inside cities. We still need to get to the different layers via elevators going to the top of buildings or underground which is cumbersome because cities have been built around ground-level travel. 50% of all miles traveled in the US are from trips that are 15 miles or shorter [6] and the average distance traveled by an Uber in the US is under 6 miles [7].  It just does not seem practical to divert a significant amount of our travels inside cities underground or in the air. Considering the energy required to dig tunnels and keep vehicles in the air, these alternative methods also don’t seem to be good for the environment in the next few decades when we are not even at 50% renewable energy globally. Any local traffic reduction due to COVID-19 seems to be temporary, already reaching previous levels in some places in August 2020 [8].

I believe a low hanging fruit is to simply make more compelling small vehicles. After all, our cities have been built around roads and most of our homes, shopping, and entertainment still occur near the ground floor. There is plenty to gain by making our vehicles smaller as the average car occupancy in the US is 1.5 people [9], and approximately the same in major cities of developed countries [10]. A surprising effect of making vehicles small and light enough is that it increases road capacity much more. To put it another way, even though a motorcycle takes up roughly a quarter of the road space of a car, a road with mostly motorcycles can carry more than ten times the traffic.

Very light vehicles like bicycles and electric kick-scooters are too slow and vulnerable in cities without enough bike lanes to gain sizable adoption. Even in the Netherlands, home of the bike capital of the world, 77% of commute distances are traveled by car. Distance is what we should care about if we are concerned about environmental impact. Bicycle usage and infrastructure is abysmally low in India and most other developing countries, where we expect the highest growth of car sales as 2 billion people join the middle class in the next decade. I think we have little hope of convincing a good portion of the newly wealthy (relative to their previous standards) to use bikes instead of buying cars.

What about public transit? The main problem is that most people in most cities don’t want to take transit or even carpooling if they can use private transportation. Increasing the adoption of public transit beyond what’s achievable with existing infrastructure also requires expensive and time-consuming investments. I predict low cost autonomous taxis will likely make transit even less popular, just like Uber and Lyft have already done so in New York City [11], a city with world-class transit [12] [13]. Small vehicles can also increase transit use as they reduce the cost of the last-mile.

One can make the argument that trying to popularize small motor vehicles is a difficult uphill battle as the size and weight of the automobile purchased by consumers have steadily increased over the past decade. In 2019, 72% of new cars sold in the US were light trucks (SUVs, vans, and pickups) [14], 44% in China [15], and has grown three-fold in Europe [16]. In fact, why would you buy a smaller car when for nothing more than a slight increase in price and fueling cost, when you get more interior space, luxury, and improved self-image from owning and commanding a large and powerful machine? I sympathize with this because as a former SUV owner, I saw many reasons to get one but no real selfish reasons against it. Consumers are only humans.  

However, one surprising consumer behavior occurred in the last two years gave me the conviction that smaller vehicles can find its place. The kick-scooter, which when I was in high school was seen as one of the least cool ways to move about (second only to those shoes with pop-out wheels), became the fastest adopted piece of technology ever when it was offered as a rental [17].  This pointed firstly to an unmet need in urban transportation that was so painful that people were willing to look like dorks and risk their safety to use them. Secondly, the fact that people who bought the newest luxury crossover SUVs were now enthusiastically using scooters meant that there were an alternative set of characteristics that they cared about in their transportation tools. It has been proposed that when people no longer own the vehicles that they use, they care more about utility than self-image. The shared scooter proved that it is possible to break the cycle of people buying increasingly larger cars that are responsible for congestion and a significant amount of climate change.

Lime and Bird scooter riders travel along downtown Indianapolis streets on Thursday, June 28, 2018.
Men in suits enthusiastically using shared scooters

Still, the rented scooters and E-bikes were imperfect in some of the same ways that bicycles are, but even more so. They were unsafe [18], didn’t work long before they had to be repaired or maintained [19], and just didn’t work at all for most people in bad weather. Also, because of their low power and speeds, they are impractical for longer trips across the city and are confined by safety to bike lanes which are severely lacking in most cities.

Hence began my journey to create a new type of vehicle. I was encouraged by the market signal that people will enthusiastically adopt utilitarian but what some might call lesser  forms of transportation when viewed through an automotive lens. A vehicle that was the smallest size needed to serve people’s daily urban transportation needs while being reliable enough to use in rain and shine and keep them safe. Electric car’s adoption is limited by the fact that people are holding onto their vehicles for longer. Out of 1.2 billion cars on the road in the world, only 66 million were sold in 2019. Like shared scooters, an ideal urban transportation option would offer enough of an improvement in convenience and cost for people to use it in place of their regular vehicle.

The key to this was to make the vehicle as narrow and short as a motorcycle so that it can be parked almost anywhere and share a garage or private parking spot with a car. It must also be able to traffic filter so that the majority of people around the world would be able to save a ton of time in traffic. These traits along with lower insurance cost would mean a significant savings in parking and time over even marginal use of cars that people already owned. Being narrow meant that the vehicle would need to tilt during turns like a motorcycle so that it remains balanced. The smallest width you can make a lightweight non-tilting vehicle is about 1.2m with four wheels or 1.5m with three - not narrow enough to traffic filter and not substantially narrower than a small car. Our envisioned vehicle would also have to use not only the best passive safety like airbags and a stiff structure but also active safety. Active safety is piggy backing off autonomous vehicle technology and is advancing at such a rate that even small motor vehicles will be safer than the cars of today in a few years.

Nimbus Halo3 prototype

I have been working on this vision since 2018 with a dedicated and talented team. Some of us have been working on electric vehicles since the 80s in Detroit. We are very close and so excited to be able to bring it into the world.