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ISU industrial design studio part of effort to increase kick scooter's appeal for personal transportation

May 12, 2016


AMES, Iowa — Students in an Iowa State University industrial design studio are part of an international project by five universities to develop the kick scooter as a more widely used method of transit. 

"The goal is to enhance personal mobility with an eco-friendly, practical, attractive and affordable product that provides physical exercise and operational convenience," said Verena Paepcke-Hjeltness, assistant professor of industrial design, who teaches the ISU Industrial Design Graduate Practicum.

In addition to Iowa State, the institutions involved are University of Applied Sciences, Berlin; University of Applied Sciences, Darmstadt, Germany; Moholy-Nagy University, Budapest, Hungary; and Shih-Chien University, Taipei, Taiwan.

Industrial design junior Christina Hamous, standing, and teammates Ian Vicente, industrial design junior, and Chris Alvarez, electrical engineering senior, review their research with Reinhart Butter, Ohio State University professor emeritus of industrial design, who initiated the scooter project. Photo by Alison Weidemann.

"I personally know faculty in each of these universities, including Verena, whom I can rely on and expect to be able to conduct the project in the way it was conceived," said Reinhart Butter, a professor emeritus of industrial design at Ohio State  University, who initiated the project.

"I also felt that a relatively young program such as the one at ISU would probably be more open to unorthodox approaches to projects of that kind and after some conversations with Verena, I also found that this program's intellectual basis and goals are appropriate for the project," he said.

Classes at all five universities are researching and developing design concepts for an electric motor-assisted kick scooter that will meet a range of criteria such as safety, portability and ease of use. This first phase is expected to be completed by August, with phase two—creation of functional prototypes—and phase three—the testing, evaluation and assessment of those prototypes—dependent on the varying academic schedules and progress of participating institutions.

Filling the gap
Though the first wooden scooters were developed as children's toys more than a century ago, it wasn't until the 1980s that they were refined for extreme sports and the GoPed—the first collapsible scooter to have a motor—was invented. The 1990s saw the development of the Razor scooter, which used airplane-grade aluminum and a step brake on the rear fender. In the early 2000s, further developments led to hybrid scooters that are powered both by kicking and by electric motors.

"The scooter has been around a long time, but it never really took off as a trend; no one wants to use it as a regular mode of transportation," Paepcke-Hjeltness said. "However, we live in a society that's commuting quite a bit and oftentimes, there's a point where you have to walk or wait for the bus or something. So there's this potential of filling that gap with a more convenient mode of transportation, such as a scooter."

Existing models "either require significant skills or they are prohibitively expensive as a personal item; they can also be too heavy or too ugly," Butter said. "I felt it should be something you don't have to learn how to use, that is not dangerous when used and that anybody can just step on and go." His project seeks to pick up where the current market has left off by making scooters more lightweight, attractive, safe and affordable as well as a more accepted and common form of personal transportation.

Research and development
Paepcke-Hjeltness' spring 2016 studio included 20 Iowa State undergraduate and graduate students majoring in industrial design, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering and an international exchange student from KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. In teams, the students first researched four themes including user and environment; trends; culture; and products, materials and technology.

The products, materials and technology research group conducted individual and focus group interviews to gain insights on scooter users' experiences. They collected responses in various categories, such as scooter model, purpose and frequency of use, important features, accidents or malfunctions, braking, suspension and
deck size.

Several of the students also developed a "Travel Tracker" app to help them collect data on travel and commuting habits to inform their designs.

Butter visited the studio in early March to offer insights and guide the class through the ideation process to begin developing design concepts.

"The students did a very good job of looking at the contributing factors in the development of an innovative new product or device," Butter said. "I was impressed by their attention to the discussions we had while I was here. I also appreciate the fact that the students have mixed backgrounds, which provides perspectives from multiple disciplines."

Based on their research findings, the class created "personas" to represent types of people who might use this product and what those users would be looking for in a scooter. The four personas determined the focus of each of the student teams in the development phase: High Performance (Fitness/Sports), Utility, Economy and High End. Each team was tasked with designing a scooter that would appeal to their respective persona.

Industrial design junior Ari Vasquez-Zelaya, front, presents the DSX Copperhead dual-sport scooter with teammates Connor McTaggart, back left, and Braden Christensen. Photo by Alison Weidemann.

Breaking the stereotype
The High Performance group focused on full-body involvement and the "exercise" aspect of using a scooter.

"Personal transportation design intrigues me, and I thought it would be a unique opportunity to break the stereotype of what people consider personal transportation in the US," said Connor McTaggart, Elm Grove, Wisconsin, a junior in industrial design. "One of the ways we try to do that is to develop a new culture around the scooter. My group is focused on a more 'athletic' scooter."

Among other features, their dual-sport scooter design incorporates an extended deck with performance-based grip options, a front drum brake, a rear and front suspension system and interchangeable wheels for more diverse or rugged terrain.

The Utility group's design evolved from two main discussions: "One was making our scooter sort of a 'Swiss Army knife' where it's compact and does many things; the other was having it be a 'chef's knife' where it's high quality but only great at one thing," said industrial design junior Christina Hamous, Ankeny.

The team first tried the Swiss Army knife approach, but "it got bulky and it wasn’t working," said Chris Alvarez, Crystal Lake, Illinois, a senior in electrical engineering. "We've more gone towards designing something that's easy and convenient to use.”

Alvarez noted that one of the biggest issues for scooter users is going uphill, which requires more power, either through increased kicking or electrical assistance.

"I came up with a 'hill detection' system that only activates the electric motor when the scooter encounters a hill. As the motor activates, it complements the rider’s physical exertion as opposed to only powering the rider up the hill," he said. "When the scooter descends, the system detects that and initiates a regenerative braking system to charge the batteries without the user feeling added resistance."

Affordable yet attractive
The Economy group was tasked with developing a scooter that would be affordable, yet attractive.

"There's a place for scooters even though they're seen as children's toys or kind of 'dorky,'" said industrial design graduate student Monica Amman, Ames. "I think our design starts to break through that and is more appealing to college students and adults. We have engineers in the class and collaborating with them really brings another level to the project that you don’t always get."

This group's scooter design revolves around an exchangeable deck that the user can design/build as well as more customizable/self-built parts that are easy to replace.

The handlebars of the Tempo urban high-end scooter house all of the electronics and can be detached to plug the rechargeable battery directly into a power outlet. With the press of a button, the scooter folds up or down.

To help them create a scooter that conveyed a sense of high social status, the High End team "looked at skateboard culture and why it's so strong as a culture and a lifestyle and tried bringing some of those aspects into our scooters," said Chris Harry, Cedar Rapids, a junior in industrial design.

"In terms of semantics we'd have exercises where we’d take words like 'bold' and 'sleek' and 'expensive,' then collect pictures of what those mean and filter out the aesthetic features of those products. It's a way of creating an image that represents what we’re trying to make with the project."

The high-end scooter design incorporates detachable handlebars with a battery that can be plugged directly into a power outlet, a simple screen display and easy-to-use folding mechanisms.

From concept to prototype
Three of the groups presented preliminary prototypes of their scooter concepts at a semester-end review May 2. Paepcke-Hjeltness plans to continue the project next year with a new, smaller team of students from both industrial design and engineering to refine the concepts and developing fully functional prototypes.

"We hope to have an exhibition or some kind of public display to share what each school has come up with," Paepcke-Hjeltness said. She also plans to prepare a report documenting the project at each school to help gain support for additional phases through grants or industry sponsors.

The Iowa State studio has created a Scooter Project website to track progress through each phase of the project.

"None of us have designed a scooter before and it speaks to what we learn in industrial design," Harry said. "It's about the process of designing. What we're learning here is how to take any project and create a successful product from it."


Verena Paepcke-Hjeltness, Industrial Design, (515) 294-7416,
Chris Alvarez, Electrical Engineering senior, (815) 245-5897,
Monica Amman, Industrial Design graduate student,
Christina Hamous, Industrial Design junior,
Chris Harry, Industrial Design junior,
Connor McTaggart, Industrial Design junior,
Brandon Hallmark, Design Communications,
Heather Sauer, Design Communications, (515) 294-9289,