In a little more than a minute, it’s possible to pull this new lightweight inflatable scooter out of a bag, fill it with air, and then start riding down the street. Poimo, short for “portable and inflatable mobility,” is a prototype now in development at the University of Tokyo, where researchers are rethinking how last-mile mobility could work. It works a bit like a pool toy.
While shared electric scooters have proliferated, their business model has seemed financially unsustainable, and valuations have cratered. (The coronavirus crisis hasn’t helped, and scooter companies Bird and Lime recently cut hundreds of jobs after they were forced to pull fleets off streets.) While some argue that cities should help fund shared scooters as public transportation, dockless services also face other challenges, including scooters littered on city sidewalks. If scooters were both cheap and much more portable, would it make more sense for commuters to own them rather than rent them?
The prototype from the Tokyo researchers uses thermoplastic polyurethane, a strong plastic fabric, stitched together inside so it inflates into the shape of a simple bike in 71 seconds. Filling it with air makes it strong enough to hold a 176-pound rider. Small wheels with motors attach to the bottom, along with a battery and a wireless controller. Once you arrive at your destination, the whole thing deflates and can be folded up and put back in a backpack. The researchers envision commuters bringing it on a train or bus and then using it to travel the final distance.
The team is now tweaking the design to make it lighter and the wheels more durable for bumpy roads. They also plan to test one of the other benefits of the design: In the case of an accident, the air-filled vehicle may be less likely to injure a pedestrian.