Flint, MI—A company that began as a thesis project at a local university now hopes to become the go-to solution for micromobility infrastructure beyond its Flint, Mich. roots.
KUHMUTE, founded by Kettering University graduates Peter Deppe and Scott Spitler in 2018, manufactures charging stations that can support a variety of micromobility vehicles—think not only e-scooters and e-bikes, but also electric wheelchairs, skateboards, and even delivery robots—at a single hub.
But it didn’t start out that way.
“It was originally a class project at Kettering,” explained Carter Holmes, KUHMUTE’s Launch Manager. “[Deppe and Spitler] saw a need for basically a charging infrastructure, but also something that could neatly organize these scooters that were getting more and more popular at the time.”
Holmes said the founders pitched their respective thesis projects after noticing several issues facing e-scooter owners around campus.
“They essentially found a solution that you could park, lock, and charge scooters all in one location without having them thrown all over the sidewalk and getting broken and stolen,” Holmes said.
But while Deppe and Spitler refined their designs to create the very first multi-modal charging station for micromobility vehicles, they had no interest in stopping there.
Now KUHMUTE is looking to tackle something much bigger than where to park and charge an e-scooter: they want to change people’s idea of how to best get around their city.
Data suggests that while Americans tend to hop behind the steering wheel for short trips, many of those trips could be completed with micromobility vehicles instead.
Results of the Federal Highway Administration’s 2020 National Household Travel Survey showed over 68 percent of passenger vehicle trips within Flint were less than 10 miles.
What’s more, a 2019 report from research firm INRIX noted that 48 percent of all car trips in the country’s 25 most congested metro areas are actually three miles or less.
“Digging deeper, 20% of trips were less than 1 mile, 16% were 1-2 miles, and 12% were 2-3 miles,” reads the INRIX report. “If a fraction of these vehicle trips were replaced with micromobility trips, American cities could reap significant benefits.”
Those benefits include not only easing downtown traffic congestion and reducing the need for car-related infrastructure (micromobility vehicles take up three to six square feet of parking area whereas Flint requires a minimum of 152 square feet per car), but also reducing the environmental harms of gasoline-fueled vehicles.
“We see ourselves mostly as fitting into an existing ecosystem of transportation options or an existing ecosystem that sometimes has to get better,” said Matt Rosenberg, Head of Communications for Helbiz, the international rideshare fleet provider that’s partnered with KUHMUTE in Flint.
Rosenberg said his company, and its partners like KUHMUTE, exist to serve that less-than-three-mile window many people tend to drive.
“An absurd amount of trips happen under two miles,” Rosenberg said of his own experience. “I live in New York right now, and [to me] that’s walking distance. So, a lot of that is getting people to change their habits.”
But to change people’s habits, Rosenberg added, transportation solution companies have to create accessible, easy alternatives to hopping in a car.
To help create that ease and accessibility, KUHMUTE’s team of engineers designs and produces customized adapters for the existing rideshare companies with which they partner, and they can even create adapters for personal micromobility devices as well.
That means folks with those adapters in Flint—or Detroit, Grand Haven, New Jersey and Canada where KUHMUTE also operates—are able to pull up to any KUHMUTE hub with their own e-mobility device to lock and charge it alongside the city’s partnered rideshare vehicles.
“In all transparency, it has mainly been companies coming to us with 30 different scooters they want to put these on,” Holmes said, holding up an unfinished adapter from a desk full of wires and loose-leaf paper.
But, he added, as KUHMUTE’s first-of-its-kind multi-modal charging station becomes more available across the country, the company hopes it will see increased interest in adapters for personal devices.
After all, as co-founder Peter Deppe points out in his sales pitch, universal micromobility charging stations could be viewed as an amenity for apartment complexes where residents may want to safely charge and store their electric bike (ebike) or wheelchair, where parking space is at a premium, or where cities provide incentives for eco-friendly infrastructure.
But at the same time, they’re dreaming big about all the possibilities for their tech, Holmes admitted KUHMUTE is still streamlining everything in Flint.
“This was almost like a re-launch,” Holmes said of the company’s partnership with Helbiz, which they announced in late July 2022.
Previously, KUHMUTE had been testing out managing a fleet of 40 e-scooters on their own. Holmes said that was definitely a learning experience, as the team realized quickly they’d need a large staff to maintain the fleet and more financing to support purchasing and fixing vehicles alongside working on the tech they truly wanted to sell.
“‘We can do both decently, or we can do one great,’” Holmes recalled the founder saying. “So we decided to put the charging infrastructure forward.”
Fortunately, that was around the time KUHMUTE got connected with Gian Luca Spriano, Director of International Business Development for Helbiz, which was already operating in dozens of cities across the world, including Milan, Miami, and Sacramento.
Together the two companies applied for a grant that has since enabled KUHMUTE to install seven charging stations across Flint and get the wheels rolling on e-scooters as a viable option for downtown travel.
“Little by little they are implementing their hub stations, and little by little we are adding our connector to the vehicles to add to the fleet,” Spriano said from his home in Italy, noting that Helbiz hopes to have around 100 e-scooters operating in Flint before winter.
In the meantime, Helbiz’s scooters are otherwise free-standing, meaning they can be operated and parked anywhere within the company’s ‘geofence’—or virtual perimeter—in Flint.
This has been a slight challenge for KUHMUTE, as the team now needs to educate existing Helbiz users on where KUHMUTE charging stations are located and how to use them in partnership with the Helbiz app.
“That is still kind of a work in progress,” Holmes said.
For now, KUHMUTE has its own app to show where its charging stations are located and Helbiz has another for operating its scooters. The goal, he said, would be to streamline that information under a single platform.
That said, while a Helbiz scooter can be unlocked from a charging station through the Helbiz app even if the user doesn’t also have the KUHMUTE app, that doesn’t solve the fact that many users may not be returning the scooters to a charging station in the first place.
“That’s been a bit of a challenge, and that’s why I’m essentially here,” Holmes said. “Whether in the future we’re going to offer incentives for that, or just have more locations, it’s getting people to [return scooters].
Despite the development and adoption hurdles still facing them, neither KUHMUTE nor Helbiz seems swayed from the goal of changing how people move around Flint.
Rosenberg said Helbiz is “encouraged” by early understandings of its vehicle usage in the city, adding that generally, their Flint ridership has been up since KUHMUTE’s July announcement.
But, Rosenberg noted, “While it has been a few weeks since the launch, I think the issue that we’re looking to tackle with KUHMUTE—changing how people move through their communities—is one that is more timely than a single event.”
Holmes agreed with Rosenberg, sitting down at KUHMUTE’s Flint area headquarters, the desk before him strewn with adapter parts, more loose-leaf papers, and a laptop.
“It’s still something new,” Holmes said with the optimism characteristic of many recent college graduates, which the majority of KUHMUTE’s team happen to be. “I think it’s just a matter of time.”