WIM OUBOTER is a man who could walk down the street anonymously, and yet millions of people use his products daily. In this Expat Living exclusive, we talk with the engaging Swiss inventor about his Micro scooter, a new electric car and why Singapore is a world leader in e-scooter regulations.
Katie Roberts meets Wim Ouboter at the home of White and Black Trading director and Micro scooter distributor Justinna Pank. (He’s used to much cooler temperatures in his hometown Zurich, so he’s feeling the humidity!) Wim is here in his capacity as founder and CEO of Micro Mobility Systems. Thousands of Micro scooters have been sold in Singapore since they launched here 10 years ago; they have revolutionised the mobility scene, and even influenced the creation of new legislation to accommodate electric scooters as a legitimate transport option.
Wim invented the first Micro scooter prototype in 1997 as a way to get to his favourite bistro – he thought it was too short a distance to go by bicycle or car. Since the commercial model launched in 2000, he has experienced phenomenal success, selling over five million units in 80 countries.
The range of scooters has been adapted and enlarged along the way, so that every member of the family – and every interest – is taken care of, from toddlers wanting to have a bit of outdoor fun, to adults interested in stunt-riding (Australians have even turned it into a sport). The company has created some nifty travel products, too.
Wim admires how far Singapore is ahead of Europe in allowing the legal use of scooters in public areas. (Israel is Number Two, he says.) “Electric scooters are illegal in Europe. In Austria and Italy, it’s even illegal to leave home on a simple kickboard scooter. Here, they’re very much embraced.
“The regulations are in place, the lawmakers are on board and, with its smooth roads and cycle paths (compared with, say, Italy’s old towns and cobblestone streets), it’s the perfect city for electric scooters,” he says. “It’s a case of the country keeping up with the demand that is being driven by innovation and technology.”
Wim is a master of innovation. He invented the Emicro One electric scooter in response to Europe’s strict rules, cleverly concealing the motor in a wheel and developing a technique to activate the electric engine without the need for a throttle or a hand brake. “It’s a hybrid that is virtually undetectable as an electric scooter, which means riders are within the law.”
On this four-day visit, his first to Singapore, Wim has met with retailers, e-scooter experts and the Land Traffic Authority (LTA) to hear about Singapore’s forward-thinking approach. “European transport committees can learn much from Singapore – this country can help change the laws by showing how strict enforcement and penalties work. With clear rules, we think that electric scooters can bring a better quality of life to people living in cities.”
Wim’s success has not been without its hiccups, and his company has weathered some tough years – especially from copycats illegally cashing in on the scooter craze and his inventions. “The trike, released in 2014, is a stroller that is so different, light and simple that we’ve sold 80,000 in China,” he says. “Already there are three copies on the market. They take less than six months to get to market.”
Wim remains pragmatic about the imitations. “It’s expensive to fight these companies, and it saps a lot of time and energy. And, even if you win, the company will probably disappear overnight. So, rather than going down the ‘battle’ route, we usually apply for patents on our designs and parts, and invest the money in new products. This has been proven to work. I would rather lead by innovation.”
What about the temptation to buy a copycat product on account of the price difference? “The quality is questionable. It’s not the same thing as buying a copy watch or a fake handbag – especially when we’re taking about the safety of children,” he says. “This is a mobility tool, and it’s the wrong place to save some money.”
What’s legal, what’s not?
Roads: In Singapore, personal mobility devices (PMDs), including e-scooters, can be ridden on footpaths and shared paths such as park connectors, but are not allowed on roads.
Speed: Limited to 15km/h on footpaths and 25km/h on shared paths.
Lights: Should be used on both the back and the front of a scooter at night.
Helmets: Recommended and encouraged for safety reasons, but not mandatory.
Giving way: Ride in an orderly manner with due regard for the safety of others, and always give way to pedestrians on footpaths and shared paths. Ride carefully and keep a safe distance from others to avoid collisions; don’t ride when it’s wet.
Kids: E-scooters are recommended for riders over 16 years of age.
Car of the future?
At his meeting with the LTA and others in Singapore, Wim was asked: “What are you going to invent next?” The group was fascinated (and probably a bit nervous!) when he showed them a picture of the Microlino electric car, his latest project. “The Microlino started as a marketing idea – a way of showing people that we’re not a toy company; that our vision is for urban mobility as a whole,” he says.
The design was inspired by the Isetta, a cheap and popular microcar that BMW sold (under licence from Iso Rivolta) in the 1950s. “The car is simple, practical and also reduced to the minimum, which suits our vision for practical urban mobility.” Initially, he commissioned it as a university project, but he was so impressed with the results that he had two prototypes built in China. “We exhibited one prototype at the Geneva Motor Show last year. People were saying, ‘This isn’t a car; what is it?’ We received 2,800 advance orders.”
The Microlino is now in production (for 2018 release) through a joint venture with electric car maker Tazzari in Italy, but Wim’s vision is for it to be manufactured locally around the world. Cars for Europe will be made in Italy, but other markets will open up through the granting of licences for in-country manufacturing. “This localised concept is a new approach – it provides local jobs, avoids import duties and cuts the CO2 emissions of transporting cars from country to country.”
Like the electric scooter and the electric bike (“five years ago they were a rarity, but now everyone in Europe has them”), the Microlino is set to shake up urban planning laws and government regulations because it’s not technically classified in the “car” category, and it carries a different type of number plate.
Wim predicts that it will become, in Europe at least, a “weekday car”, while bigger cars with more range will be used on weekends. “We want to make this small car a lifestyle product that is cool; only then will people be willing to swap to it. It could be the car of the future and the beginning of a mind-set change, especially in the mega-cities.”
Wim is sure-footed about his company’s success, strengths and future. And, he says, the future lies with his sons, Oliver and Merlin. They will come on board once they finish their university studies – in fact, they’ve already been heavily involved in the Microlino project. “The kids can take on the Microlino,” he says with a smile. “I’m the scooter man!”
Find out more about Micro scooters and other products at sg.whiteandblacktrading.com.