Peter Treadway zips around an empty parking lot, right across the street from the Graham Middle School in Mountain View, occasionally flashing a toothy smile at the small crowd watching him. He glides effortlessly in figure eights—sometimes around beginners, who stumble, wobble and wave their arms in the air. It looks as though he’s on Rollerblades or ice skates, but he never moves his legs—and his feet never come off the ground.
Treadway, 41, is sporting RocketSkates, an invention he dreamed up as a child. The electric, motorized skates strap on over shoes, have a bulky battery pack behind the heel and two prominent wheels on either side of the foot. The red, black and silver skates zoom up to 12 mph (depending on the setting pre-programmed into a smartphone app), and pushing down on the heel activates a brake. Treadway, co-founder and chief technology officer of ACTON, the Los Angeles-based parent company of RocketSkates, came to the Bay Area to hand-deliver skates to recent buyers, and to let others test drive the futuristic technology.
The inspiration for RocketSkates, which cost between $500 and $700, traces back to the comics and cartoons Treadway watched as a child: Ironman, Wile E. Coyote, Inspector Gadget and the Jetsons.
“I saw those things and wondered, ‘What would be the modern-day version of these superpowers, of being able to glide around and fly on the ground?'” he says.
While the invention was born in the realm of fantasy, Treadway, who used to do acrobatic rollerblading—including rail slides—when he was younger, is finding that RocketSkates have important practical implications to overcome California’s transportation challenges. Many commuters face difficulties getting from transportation hubs, such as bus and train stations, to their final destinations (i.e. home or work).
“There’s so much bad public transportation in Los Angeles. There’s a lot of good stuff too, but it’s not well connected,” Treadway says. “Then this concept of the last mile came along and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you could connect all those different dots so that you could get around anywhere?'”
RocketSkates are one of several lightweight electric vehicles that are popping up across California—thanks to better motor and battery technology—to transform local transportation systems in an environmentally friendly way.
“A lot of the effort in the electric vehicle industry has focused on replacing gas vehicles with electric equivalents,” says Sanjay Dastoor, co-founder of Boosted Boards, a Palo Alto-based startup that builds electric skateboards. “But there hasn’t been a lot of work yet on what you could build as an electric vehicle that you couldn’t build with gas, things like skateboards, scooters and bicycles. “We’re just beginning to see where that’s going to go.”
Dastoor, an avid snowboarder who started Boosted Boards three and a half years ago with two other Stanford robotics students, explains that his electric skateboards are made with the same type of batteries and management systems as those used for Tesla, Nissan Leaf and other kinds of electric vehicles. They’re paired with “very powerful, lightweight motors” and regenerative braking, he says, similar to what is found in a hybrid car. Both are activated by a Bluetooth remote control. The 15-pound board goes up to 22 mph and has a range of about six miles, after which users can plug into a normal household outlet to re-charge. The boards cost between $999 and $1,499.
For Dastoor, 30, Boosted Boards aren’t designed to replace traditional skateboard. They’re intended as an alternative to cars and to fill in the transportation gaps in urban areas. “We don’t see a lot of people who say, ‘I used to commute on a long board, and now I commute on a Boosted Board,'” he says. “What we do hear people say is, ‘I used to drive,’ or ‘I was able to move further away from the train station because I have my Boosted Board.'”
Andrew Davidge, founder of the Santa Clara-based Vintage Electric Bikes, agrees. “The idea of this company wasn’t to take people off their bikes,” he says, “it’s to get people out of their cars.”
Davidge, 23, started Vintage Electric Bikes a year ago. He initially thought he was creating “a rich dude’s toy.” The bikes reach up to 38 mphbut can last 30 miles at the optimal cruise speed—28 mph. Like Boosted Boards, the bikes have regenerative braking and can be plugged into a normal electrical outlet for two hours for re-charge. The E-Tracker model costs $4,995.
But as the bikes took off, Davidge realized their popularity came, in part, from solving key transportation problems as well. “A ton of kids that live up in San Francisco that don’t have cars work at Google, take the Google bus to work, and use this to get around the city,” he says, pointing out that the bikes work well on hills. Davidge rides his own electric bike from his home in Los Gatos to his office in Santa Clara, a commute that he says is usually quicker than driving.
“You’ll always probably have to have a car, especially in the United States,” he says. “But using it everyday? One person getting into a Suburban to commute to work doesn’t make much sense. You’re carrying all that around you just to get to work.”
“Even if people commuted once a week on something like this,” he continues, pointing to one of the bikes he’s about to ship out, “it would help our oil consumption.”
Electric skates, boards and bikes have additional benefits over cars—even electric ones. They offer “multi-modal transportation,” says Dastoor, meaning, “You have the ability to interact with public transportation, car sharing services and private vehicles.” For example, he says, a person could ride a Boosted Board to meet a friend for dinner somewhere, and afterwards, could get a ride home with that friend and throw the board in the trunk of the car. “A vehicle you could carry in another vehicle is actually pretty amazing,” he says.
In the same way, Davidge says electric bikes can easily fit onto public trains. Treadway takes it a step further, saying that in the future, he envisions RocketSkates as something that could be worn “all day longÉ so that maybe you could even ride a bike when you’re wearing them.”
As business parks and corporate campuses grow larger, Dastoor says, the market for smaller, lightweight electric vehicles could become “the dominant form of transportation, specifically for cities, urban areas, campuses and other places where cars don’t work really well.”
“Silicon Valley is a tech bubble,” says Davidge, “but I can see it turning into a transportation bubble.”