Digitalisation and connectivity have opened up an entire domain of opportunities – micromobility. Personal electric transport such as scooters and e-bikes are rented via smartphone apps or picked up at docking stations in cities across North America, Europe, and Asia. Estonian companies have been at the forefront of this transformation. Now, sustainability concerns are at the forefront of one of the leading micromobility companies in Estonia, Kõu Mobility Group.
Sustainability from scratch
Kõu and all the daughter companies in the group – Comodule, which provides software and IoT solutions for light electric vehicles; Tuul, a rental service for electric scooters; Äike, a manufacturer of electric scooters; and Ampler, a developer of electric bicycles – are good examples of a problem-focused enterprise: to develop transportation that would leave the world in a better shape for our children than it is now. Micromobility may be the key to solving this problem because, in big cities, rides are routinely so short that a car can be easily substituted by a shared scooter, e-bike, or something completely different. However, Kõu has also recognised that the sustainability of micromobility is not for granted, but requires focused, long-term and many-faceted effort.
“In terms of sustainability, although compared to many other companies, we might be quite far ahead, I see that we are at the beginning of our journey,” says Silja Kahar, Head of Quality Management at Kõu Mobility Group. “Sustainability of micromobility depends on how we design and build our products, how they are maintained, how they are recycled, but also how they are used in the cities. Hence, this is a combined effort by us and our employees and other actors, such as users and cities.”
Because of this, Kõu is approaching sustainability from scratch. Interestingly, when recruiting new employees, the first step is taken before anything is done.
“When we interview people, we first ask them about their sustainability behaviour: do they recycle? Do they use public transport?” describes Ms Kahar. “We want everyone in our company to have the same mentality.”
For these reasons, the employees of Kõu do not receive free parking or fuel allowance benefits. They get scooter credits. In the winter season, too.
“Ski helmet has become my daily accessory,” smiles Ms Kahar. “It has insulation, a visor. As they say, there is no bad weather, only insufficient clothing.”
From design to maintenance and recycling
As micromobility emerged, so did the accumulation of damaged scooters, raising concerns about the dark side of green mobility. Kõu recognised the need for a sustainable alternative, and Comodule launched Äike, the world’s first e-scooter built outside of China. Its design is robust to improve lifespan and allow efficient maintenance. Renewable energy produces and operates it, and 92% of its components are recyclable. As part and parcel, Kõu is the bearer of the Environmental Management System (ISO 14001) certificate.
“It may sound small, but our scooters can withstand water damage. This changes greatly because we pick a couple from the Bay of Tallinn or the river Daugava in Riga daily. We dry them up, and they run the next day,” says Ms Kahar.
The scooter’s design also allows them to be charged not by picking the entire scooter up every night but by changing the battery alone. The batteries are transported not by diesel vans but using Vok electric cargo bikes.
Parts of individual scooters are built robustly so that they can be recycled many times in new scooters. What Ms Kahar is most proud of, though, is the upcycling of the batteries of Tuul scooters.
“When the batteries have lived their useful life in scooters, we don’t just throw them away. We bring them to our factory and use them in our backup system for storing solar energy,” says Ms Kahar.
Reflecting on the journey ahead, Ms Kahar recognizes that their following targets include software and data sustainability. So far, they have targeted the hardware of their products as the fastest way to reduce their footprint.
Cooperation between cities and entrepreneurs
Microobility has great potential regarding environmental sustainability, but it is not a silver bullet. Studies have shown that micromobility can reduce car usage and emissions when well-integrated with public transport.
Ms Kahar admits that the most significant challenges are not technological, but pertaining to regulations, city planning, and education of users. Through these aspects, micromobility becomes part of the general transition towards less car-oriented and more cycle and scooter-oriented mobility. Therefore, interfaces with the public sphere are crucial.
“We have developed good relations with the cities where we operate,” says Ms Kahar. “For example, we approached Tallinn to suggest that to reduce the clutter in the streets, e-scooters should be parked in designated locations. It makes a lot of difference in attitude towards micromobility.”
Public officials also play a crucial role in how the infrastructure – bike lanes, for example – are planned and built. This includes regulation changes, such as how wide the lanes should be. Hence, the cooperation with city administrators is a continuous one.
Different cities have taken diverse pathways. The challenges of sustainable mobility are different in Amsterdam and in Tallinn. But if companies take sustainability as seriously as Kõu, there is still hope that their dream – to leave the world to our children in a better condition than it is today – may be fulfilled.