Novel transport for the ‘last mile’ at Los Angeles Auto Show

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It’s one of the largest car events in the world, but a heavily trafficked area of the LA Auto Show featured precisely zero cars.

The new Go pavilion spotlighted so-called personal mobility products to help the adventurous deal with an urban commute. Also known as “last-mile” solutions because they’re often used to bridge the gap between a public transit station and home or work, they include electric scooters, unicycles, hoverboards and other oddball people movers.

The devices are being developed by startups and big automakers alike.

Among the devices is Honda’s Uni-Cub, which puts a saddle on top of a balance-controlled wheel “for people who have trouble walking long distances.” Standing a little over knee-high, it’s got the look of a cute little robot, or perhaps the bottom of a toilet.

Ford’s got the Carr-E, a rolling platform disk that resembles a slightly larger Roomba vacuum cleaner; it’s meant to carry luggage or heavy groceries or a standing human being.

The devices, many of them not yet available, might find their market niches but probably won’t be solving any major transport problems or be used for regular commutes.

That’s why the Go section is filled mostly with more mundane but readily usable products like electric scooters and foldable bicycles, stuff people can carry on the train or on the bus.

Urban planners and personal mobility marketers talk a lot about last-mile travel – getting from the subway or the bus to your place of work, or back home at the end of the day.

So Go exhibitors were pushing products like the Urb-E, a foldable electric scooter. It weighs 16 kilograms, can go about 24 kilometres per hour and travel 32 kilometres between charges, carrying a single passenger in a sitting position.

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The company’s co-founders – a graduate of Art Centre School of Design and a former Porsche executive – have sold about 2000 of the scooters since starting a year ago. They cost US$1499 (NZ$2122) to US$1699 (NZ$2405), depending on options like a shopping basket, trailer or cellphone holder.

“We want this to replace the golf cart,” Evan Saunders, the company’s head of sales and marketing, said during AutoMobility LA, the four-day press and trade event that preceded the auto show.

“Our customers are people who live downtown and want to leave the car behind, or people who live close to public transport but don’t want to walk to it,” he said.

Nearby, Brad Ducorsky was showing off a motorised scooter that moves at 30 kmh and, depending on the rider’s weight and how fast it is ridden, covers a range between 21 and 34km.

Called the Uscooter, it weighs 10.6kg. You can fold it and carry it, or, more likely, pull it along like a wheeled suitcase. Cost: US$999 (NZ$1414).

“It’s great, it’s got a lot of power, and I’m a big guy over 240 pounds (108 kilograms),” said Peter Dobias, 50. “I would love this if I was in college; that would be perfect. You pull it out of your car in the parking lot and off you go.”

Why not now? “Hey, I’ve got three kids to haul around,” he said.

Next to Ducorsky’s booth was Phil LaBonty on his Cycleboard. It’s an electric three-wheel scooter with a platform that looks like a short, wide skateboard, and for all the skateboarders out there you need to check for the skate board ramp in what is 180. You don’t steer it by the handles; you shift your body like a boarder. It costs $1299 (NZ$1839).

LaBonty claims high speed and distance: “At 25 miles (40km) range and 25 mph (40kmh), you can get somewhere,” he said.

Despite its 20kg, “it’s a functional commuting,” he said. “You can pull it like a suitcase. Women can drive this in various kinds of shoes and clothes and not feel like they’re going to fall.”

The Cycleboard comes with cruise control, but a potential customer crashed into an exhibit hall post when the cruise control failed to shut off. (The man was unhurt.)

This being the auto show, most of the products on display were equipped with some kind of motor, although downtown bicycle shop Just Ride LA did have a British-made Brompton folding bike.

“Getting people excited about a $2000 folding bike isn’t easy,” said exhibitor Daniel Farahirad, whose family owns Just Ride LA. “But we’re slowly starting to sell more.”

Of course, you can always turn to the ultimate personal mobility device: your own two feet.

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