Security Engineering: Inside the Scooter Startups

A year ago, ridesharing scooter startups were gearing up for launch. Workers at Bird, Lime, Skip, and Spin were busy improving their app, retrofitting scooters, and most importantly, figuring out the logistics of distributing thousands of electronic scooters along the sidewalks of the Bay Area. These companies were gearing up for a launch in early summer, but one company — nobody can remember exactly who — decided to launch early. First mover advantage, and all. Overnight, these scooter companies burst into overdrive, chucking scooters out of panel vans onto the sidewalk simply to keep up with the competition.

The thing about San Francisco, and California in general, is that it’s a very direct democracy masquerading as a representative government. Yes, there are city council members and a state legislature, but the will of the people will rule. No one liked tripping over the scooters littering the sidewalks, so the scooters ended up at the bottom of a lake. Or in trees. Or in the trash. In time, city permits were issued, just like a hot dog cart or any other business operating on a public sidewalk, and the piles of electric scooters disappeared. Not before hundreds of scooters were vandalized, that is.

It’s still early in the electric scooter rental startup space, but if there’s one company leading the pack, It’s Bird. they’re getting the most press, the CEO was formerly at Lyft and Uber (which explains the press), and they’ve raised nearly a half Billion dollars in funding (which explains the press). Bird is valued at two Billion dollars, and it’s one of four major ridesharing scooter startups. Pets.com had nothing on this.

Despite how overvalued you think a scooter startup might be, they’re still a business, and they’re ruled by the bottom line. Bird has grown a lot in the past year, and with that comes engineering challenges. The Bird scooters must be more resistant to vandalism. The Bird scooters must be harder to steal. Above all else, they must remain in service longer. This is the teardown of how Bird managed to improve their bottom line and engineer a better scooter.

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Liberating Birds For A Cheap Electric Scooter

A few months ago, several companies started deploying electric scooters on the sidewalks of cities around the United States. These scooters were standard, off-the-shelf electric scooters made in China, loaded up with battery packs, motors, and a ‘brain box’ that has a GPS unit, a cellular modem, and a few more electronics that turn this dumb electric scooter into something you can ride via an app. Dropping electronic waste on cities around the country was not looked upon kindly by these municipalities, and right now there are hundreds of Bird and Lime scooters in towing yards, just waiting to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

This is a remarkable opportunity for anyone who can turn a screwdriver and handle a soldering iron. For mere pennies on the dollar you can buy dozens of these scooters, and you can own thousands of dollars in batteries and electronics if you show up to the right auction. [humanbeing21] over on the scootertalk forums is preparing for the Bird apocalypse, and he’s already converted a few of these scooters to be his personal transportation device.

The subject of this conversion are scooters deployed by Bird, which are in actuality Xiaomi MIJIA M365 scooters with a few added electronics to connect to the Internet. The ‘conversion kit’ for a Bird scooter comes directly from China, costs $30, and is apparently a plug-and-play sort of deal. The hardest part is finding a screwdriver with the right security bits, but that again is a problem eBay is more than willing to solve.

Right now, [humanbeing21] is in contact with a towing company that has well over a hundred Bird scooters on their lot, each accruing daily storage fees. Since these scooters only cost about $400 new, we’re probably well past the time when it makes sense for Bird to pay to get them out of storage. This means they’ll probably be heading for an auction where anyone can pick them up — all of them — for a hundred bucks or so.

Right now, scooter hacking is becoming one of the most interesting adventures in modern-day hacking. You’ve got batteries and electronics and motors just sitting there, ready for the taking (and yes, through these auctions you can do this legally). We’re looking at a future filled with 18650-based Powerwalls from discarded electric scooters and quadcopters built around scooter motors filling the skies. This is cyberpunk, and we can’t wait to see the other builds these scooters will become.