One of the things I like best about working at Jalopnik (other than Chili-Chuggin' Tuesdays) is that we'll happily cover almost any form of transportation. Cars, planes, trains, hovercraft, submarines, spaceships, whatever. Which is why I was able to test out the pre-production Acton M Mobility Scooter.
The scooter, designed by ArtCenter alum and genuine car guy Peter Treadway (he once had a 914 he crammed a big V8 into) is not quite a moped, not quite a bicycle, not quite walking, and definitely not a Segway. It's an electric, foldable mobility device, something for getting you around in a roughly similar scope of ability as a bicycle. But there's some key differences.
Unlike a bike, the Acton M scooter is compact enough and maneuverable enough at low speeds that you could drive it through a crowd of people without causing all kinds of chaos. You could drive it into a building, and right onto an elevator. You can fold it into the size of a medium suitcase, and shove it under a desk or in a car trunk.
It's an interesting sort of vehicle. If you live in a large, dense city, I could see it functioning as your daily commuting vehicle, possibly used in conjunction with public transport. I could imagine checking it on a flight to a big, dense city and then using it to get around when there. It could make sense on college campuses and in big factories or warehouses or at racetracks or any number of large-area places you may be sick of trudging across.
Design-wise, I think it's got an interesting, future-city-where-everyone-wears-jumpsuits-and-has-sex-with-replicants kind of feel to it. The front LED lighting array is especially nice, and I like the white/black/red color scheme. Riding on one is still a pretty geeky-looking experience, but I think being seen on the Acton M makes you look significantly less douchey than being seen on a Segway, for whatever that's worth.
Let's linger around this point for a moment: one of the big hurdles you have in making any type of personal vehicle that fits in the uncomfortable space between Rascal and Moped you're going to be fighting up against the cruel, heartless monster named I Look Like A Dork. I think the Acton M folks have managed to if not defeat the beast, at least keep it in check. Though my wife disagreed when she saw me on it.
I spoke with Peter Treadway a good bit about the project. He's been interested in alternate mobility machines for a while, having successfully designed electric roller skates and founded a company to sell them. Treadway believes this sort of mobility scooter fills a hole that bicycles and other vehicles can't. To see if I thought he was right, they gave me one to try out for three days.
Which led me to my first dichotomy of feelings about the Acton M: I was both very impressed with how small a unit it folds up into, fitting easily into the smallish luggage area of my wife's Scion xB, and dismayed by how freaking heavy it is.
It's 70 lbs, which may not sound like all that much, but it's a fairly awkward package to hold and lifting it up and into a car's — let alone an SUV's — luggage area is not so easy. Peter told me they're going to be adding handles to the scooter to make it easier, and that certainly will help.
The folding is really pretty clever — the rear wheels fold in (sort of like that old French Reyonnah microcar), the rear standing/parcel panels flip up, the seat retracts onto the main body, and the handlebars fold down. I suggested that it should positively lock in open and closed positions, and I believe that will be integrated into future models.
My goal was to use it for all errands that took place within 1 mile or so of my house. My first one was getting Sally, my wife, some coffee from a place about 1/4 mile away, over streets and sidewalks, some hilly. I hopped on the Action M and set off, feeling like a background extra in a movie about a suburb in the Tron universe.
The errand went just fine on the scooter, a bit more fun than otherwise, but it did really highlight the need for a good cupholder. Steering it while trying to not spill coffee is challenging, like playing a bassoon while surfing challenging. They assure me one will be available for the production model.
The Acton M can do 15 MPH, but hills affect that very much — downhill it can get downright scary at speeds of what are probably, what, 18? 20? And some hills will take you down to a walking pace. It handles fine at slow speeds, but gets a little scary going fast — it's the tippy kind of three-wheel layout, and it wouldn't be too hard to steer wrong and pitch the whole thing over.
The motor is mounted in the front wheel's hub, which makes for easy burnouts but forces you to stand up and put weight on the front for imperfect surfaces or steeper hills. This isn't too big a deal, as folding the seat down and riding standing up does give you a bit more ability to shift your weight and absorb road shocks.
The brakes aren't used that much, as the resistance of the motor when coasting is usually enough to slow you down, and at higher speeds they're not too confidence-inspiring, I had one rear drum lock up on me, but that was a preproduction issue that will be sorted out, and I was even able to fix it with needlenose pliers.
I also took it to a big park, and tried it on grass, dirt, and concrete, and it worked on all surfaces, The dirt was actually quite fun, as you could spin that front wheel and kick up big clouds of dust, and do all kinds of fun drifty donuts and the like. It's actually pretty fun to tool around on.
Also, it can be a great donut/hurt yourself machine. See the front wheel can swivel all the way around, which cleverly allows you to drive it in reverse, and also lets you crank the wheel perpendicular to the scooter's axis, jam on the power, and whip around until you get flung off. I'm counting that as a plus.
The range is 15 miles, and it recharges in 2-3 hours. There's a little battery charge indicator on the handlebars, but there's an issue with that. It's not an issue just with the Acton M, but with all similar electric vehicles. The problem is that electric cars have trained us to see these meters and think of them in terms of range — how far we can go — as opposed to overall power.
I tried taking another neighborhood trip when the meter was in the mid/low range, thinking if I had a 15 mile range, this trip would eat up no more than 1 mile or so. That's thinking about it as a range meter. But as a power meter, which it actually is, I should have known better than to attempt the trip.
At that low level of power, the scooter would not make it up hills, and eventually died on me entirely on the way home. I was able to wheel it back, but it was a bit awkward. Especially with the jeers from ne'er-do-wells admonishing me to "buy a horse." Assholes.
Here's what I like about the Acton M scooter: In the right environment, I think it could fulfill a personal mobility role in a way that a bike or a moped or e-bike couldn't. I think if you lived in, say, New York, something like this could grant you a good bit of extra independence of getting around, which is always nice. I think it has a good, modern look, and is pretty fun, and the ability to collapse so well makes it a viable idea for very space-contracted places.
What I don't like as much is the lack of stability at higher — but still possible — speeds, the weak braking system, the weight, and the high price. They're asking $1800, which isn't unreasonable for a device like this, but it's still a lot for the sorts of people who likely could really use it. If they could get it down under a grand, I think it becomes a much more viable prospect.
I was told that could be possible down the road, but they need to get things going at first, hence the higher initial price. Overall, I think Treadway and his company are on to something potentially interesting, and I'd like to see what this turns into if their Kickstarter gets funded.
Also, a Spec Acton M race series could be pretty fun, too.