Four years ago, Bird Rides Inc. boldly began parking its first-generation e-scooters on the sidewalks of Santa Monica even though it lacked the proper permits.
What started as a novelty has now become a $800-billion worldwide business, with the devices now ubiquitous throughout the world. The scooters also became one of the most visible symbols of Santa Monica's booming and carefree tech scene, with top VCs scootering into the office with the ocean air blowing through their hair.
But as Bird prepares to go public via a blank check acquisition, the company is facing the embarrassment of being kicked out of its hometown this summer just as the tattered micromobility business recovers from pandemic lockdowns.
With a population of less than 100,000 residents, Santa Monica is not a financially important market for Bird. But the clashes it has had with city regulators are emblematic of what it has encountered worldwide after expanding to more than 150 cities.
Even though Santa Monica's transportation department was authorized by the City Council to permit four scooter operators, it chose just three – Spin, Veo and Lyft – for the next phase of its shared mobility pilot program, which lasts from July 1 to March 30, 2023. Bird placed fourth.
Bird declined to make anyone available for an interview but in a statement sent to dot.LA, it indicated it plans to appeal the decision.
"We are disappointed by the current recommendation for the next phase of the Santa Monica Micromobility Program and look forward to taking the opportunity to further demonstrate Bird's commitment to the city during the comments and objections process," the company said.
Bird has not filed an appeal as of Monday but has until May 26 to do so, according to Constance Farrell, a spokeswoman for the city.
Santa Monica transportation staff made their selection based on 10 different criteria. Bird was dinged for affordability, customer service, durability, safety and maintenance/ operations.
It performed well in the local preference category, though Bird received the same ranking as Lyft, which is based in San Francisco.
Bird also originally did not make it into the city's first e-scooter pilot in 2018 but was later added back in because of its hometown presence, according to the Santa Monica Daily Press, which was first to report Bird's pending removal.
Though Bird is still based in Santa Monica, its presence has been greatly diminished over the past year. It laid off half of its employees there last year as the pandemic ground worldwide ridership to a halt and put its airy headquarters up for sublease in October.
Bird has had a rocky relationship with Santa Monica, ever since deploying its scooters there in 2017, before it received the city's permission.
"We felt we were in a gray area," Bird founder and CEO Travis VanderZanden said at the time.
The city disagreed and sued, contending e-scooters were endangering local residents and visitors. Bird signed a plea agreement with Santa Monica in 2018 and paid $300,000 in fines. It also agreed to bring down maximum speeds from 21mph to 15mph.
"With this agreement, Bird and VanderZanden acknowledge that they failed to comply with the City of Santa Monica's business licensing requirements which are designed to protect the safety of the public," Deputy City Attorney Eda Suh said in a statement announcing the settlement.
As part of going public, Bird revealed last week it has been involved in more than a hundred lawsuits involving "brain injuries, internal injuries, and death," many of which are still pending.
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Unagi, the trendy Oakland e-scooter startup that has drawn fawning comparisons to Apple and Tesla, is expanding its subscription service to a broader swath of Los Angeles and New York, along with six other cities.
Up until last year, the sleek scooters were only available to those who shelled out $990 to purchase one, but COVID accelerated the company's plans to launch a subscription service, which it started testing in parts of L.A. and New York last summer.
The flat $49 monthly fee – or $39.99 if you commit to a year – includes maintenance and insurance for theft or damage and FedEx delivery within three days of ordering.
The company hopes the subscription will appeal to commuters who are still worried about taking public transit and those who rent shared scooters from companies like Bird and Lime that can cost $5 to $10 per ride.
Subscription services — whether for streaming, food delivery or furniture — are also very much in vogue.
"Millennials prefer access over ownership," Unagi co-founder and CEO David Hyman told dot.LA. in August. "This model helps us bring it to a larger audience."
Unagi All-Access, as it is called, will now be available on the Westside, Southeast L.A, the San Fernando Valley and in Orange County. And for the first time, riders can subscribe in Austin, Miami, Nashville, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle.
Unagi also announced a $10.5 million Series A funding round to fund the expansion, led by The Ecosystem Integrity Fund with participation from Menlo Ventures, Broadway Angels and Gaingels.Bird offers monthly rentals too, but only in San Francisco, Miami, Washington, D.C. and on certain college campuses.
On a recent crisp winter morning outside an empty office park in the San Fernando Valley, there were no workers to be seen. That is unless one counts the cooler-sized delivery robot slowly whirring down the sidewalk as Felipe Chavez, founder and CEO of Kiwibot, nervously watched to make sure the droid did not veer of course.
Just as no one now thinks twice about seeing e-scooters that were non-existent before late 2017, the sight of a robot ferrying salads, pizza, or groceries could become common on Los Angeles sidewalks before this year is over.
Kiwibot has quietly been testing its robots – specially designed to look cute and non-threatening – for the past few weeks in the Valley, as well as more recently at a major university campus the company won't yet name. If all goes well, Kiwibot will begin offering delivery to students through as early as next month before expanding to Santa Monica and other parts of the city after that.
"L.A. is going to be our most important city this year," Chavez said. "In the first five months of the year we plan to employ 100 robots here in the city, and we expect that by the end of the year we're going to have around 400 robots deployed."
Postmates, which is now owned by Uber, has been testing a handful of delivery robots in West Hollywood since April. While those are accompanied by a human chaperone, the Kiwibot robots set out on their own, though operators take over remotely for more complex tasks like crossing the street.
Kiwibot has already made over 120,000 deliveries since 2017 during rollouts at University of California, Berkeley, University of Denver, and San Jose, where it partnered with Shopify and Ordermark. But L.A., with its vast geographic footprint, is a whole new degree of difficulty.
"It's a great challenge for us," said Chavez.
Kiwibot chose L.A. because the city already has a high adoption of food delivery, it is home to potential partners like ChowNow and Ordermark, and the city has been a willing collaborator through its Urban Movement Labs (UML), mostly by sharing data on city streets and sidewalks.
"We trust L.A. to be the best new market for us because the food delivery habit is already there, and we feel backed to scale in an organized and socially responsible and sustainable manner," said David Rodriguez, Kiwibot's head of business.
After a confrontational approach between cities and ridesharing and e-scooter companies, Lilly Shoup, UML's interim executive director, says L.A. is trying to be more collaborative with delivery robots.
"I think we've learned that it's important for city transportation agencies to get ahead of new technology before they appear on city streets," Shoup said. "It's important to understand their business models and proactively develop policies."
UML is also working on a pilot to deliver goods via drone by 2022 and in both instances Shoup says the technology can help reduce pollution and congestion since most deliveries now are made via cars.
"It's really exciting to think about new ways to reduce the environmental impact of delivery," Shoup said.
Robots substantially bring down the cost of delivery, which could help restaurants that operate on thin margins during even the best of times and have been devastated this year. But it will also mean fewer delivery jobs, most of which have been preserved as contract work in California with the recently passed Proposition 22.
Restaurants typically pay between 15% to 30% on orders placed with delivery services like Postmates or Grubhub and drivers are hardly getting rich. In fact, they often make less than minimum wage.
Kiwibot charges fees of a couple dollars on each order – which can be absorbed by the restaurant or passed onto customers. The company says its cost per delivery is now $2.98 but as it scales and the technology improves it can shave the cost down to $1.23 by the end of 2022.
Right now, Kiwibot robots – which cost between $2,500 and $4,000 each – can only operate in a 1.5 mile radius but the company's next generation can go eight miles and is large enough to fit a 12-inch pizza.
Will the Public Accept Robots?
Even when the technology is ready, Kiwibot has what may be a tougher obstacle to overcome – public acceptance. Public safety commissioners in West Hollywood raised concerns about Postmates' robots and even in tech-friendly San Francisco, a city lawmaker, worried they might run into pedestrians, tried to ban them.
Kiwibot warns potential investors on its crowdfunding page: "Delivery bots have proved controversial in some regulatory environments with some cities, like San Francisco, putting out laws that make it difficult for us to deploy. If this became widespread we would have trouble going to market."
Chavez says he spends a great deal of time thinking about how he can get the public to be comfortable with robots.
"There is a sector of people that are concerned about robots and I think that it is very important to listen to them and to get their feedback on everything. but robots are going to happen," Chavez said.
The robot also has a sign affixed to the back to clarify that it is not recording any video, something that was added after homeless people in San Jose feared they were being spied on.
There is a "black box," which records in case of an emergency, but none of the devices have been stolen — so far.
Even though local regulations can allow for robots to go as fast as 10 mph, Chavez has found a speed of 6 mph makes people feel safer.
There are also important visual considerations. Kiwibot's robots look nothing like the hulking devices conjured up in sci-fi movies like "Transformers" or "The Terminator." They are more like a plastic cooler on wheels with lights on the front that resemble a smiling face.
"The new version is even more cute," said Chavez. "It's like a squirrel on a rock."
Taking a page from nature, the design is deliberately playful and small.
"When you see an animal and it is bigger than the width of your shoulders you feel threatened," Chavez said. "So we have made sure that the robot is never going to be wider [than you] so that people don't feel threatened."
Coronavirus has also been helpful, helping accelerate the adoption not only of delivery but also of robots – who you don't have to worry about coughing on you.
Competition with Bigger Robot Deliveries
Kiwibot, which is based in San Jose, has raised more than half $1 million from more than 650 investors in its latest crowdfunding campaign, to bring its fundraising total to over $3 million.
That pales in comparison to not only Uber but also much larger rivals Starship, a robot food delivery service launched in 2014 by two Skype co-founders that plans to rollout deliver to 100 universities by next summer and Nuro – an autonomous vehicle startup founded by two ex-Google engineers valued at $4 billion. The company received regulatory approval last week to operate on city streets in the Bay Area.
But with global autonomous last-mile delivery projected to grow from $11.16 billion next year to $76 billion by 2030, Kiwibot sees room for multiple competitors.
"In L.A. right now we are talking with multiple partners, very big companies," said Chavez.
"Everything is moving very fast," he added, as his robot inched along the sidewalk, heading back to the lab to continue more testing.
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