Electric scooters are the latest casualties in Silicon Valley’s class war.
Dockless scooters, owned by companies like Bird, Lime, or Lyft, made their debut in a number of U.S. cities last year. But in gentrifying cities like San Francisco and D.C., the sight of a corporate-owned scooter lying across a public sidewalk can forecast a coming wave of cat cafes and rent hikes. So a trend of jailbreaking scooters—overriding their software so users can ride them for free—has taken on a political note, with hackers describing the act as a “cyberpunk” adventure, and one scooter company making legal threats against a journalist who described the process.
An August video shows a teenager hacking the electronic scooters that dot Los Angeles sidewalks. He unlocks the scooter with an app, and a man rides away on it without paying.
“What if he never comes back with that?” someone asks in the footage, uploaded by YouTuber Adam22.
“I’ll just get another one,” the teen says.
He was exploiting an app glitch to unlock a Bird scooter. Ordinarily the scooters remain immobile until a user logs in with a smartphone app, which also notes their location. The vehicles are dockless, so riders can deposit them in a public space of their choice, leading to complaints of scooters lying on sidewalks, bike lanes, and trash cans.
Days later, another YouTuber uploaded a video explaining the glitch, which Bird later corrected. But other tech-savvy riders have found their own ways to extract free rides.
In October, users on the forum ScooterTalk started musing on how to convert a Bird electric scooter into a scooter for personal use. One writer found a cheap kit ($32 online) that would let them replace the Bird’s circuit board with a generic board, which would override the Bird’s anti-theft measures.
“I rode mine to and from work this week and it worked flawlessly,” the hacker wrote.
Bird was less than pleased. After the website Boing Boing wrote about the motherboard hack in December, Bird sent the blog a takedown request, claiming the story violated Bird copyright by promoting an illegal product designed to infringe on Bird’s intellectual property. Bird retracted the request on Monday. A Bird spokesperson told the BBC the company had “overstretched” in ordering the article removed.
Part of Bird’s “overstretch” was the claim that the motherboard hack was illegal. In fact, the scooters’ own unpopularity in some cities has made them easier to buy legally, according to the hacking blog Hackaday.
“Dropping electronic waste on cities around the country was not looked upon kindly by these municipalities,” Hackaday noted last month, “and right now there are hundreds of Bird and Lime scooters in towing yards, just waiting to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.” In other words, the same parking problem that made scooters so unwelcome in some neighborhoods made them easy to purchase at auction, after which their motherboards can be replaced.
But these modifications aren’t as apolitical as upgrading a bike or putting new wheels on a used car. Local scooter disputes, particularly in gentrifying areas, give the scooter modifications a more radical tenor. Not only are the private scooters blocking common sidewalks and cluttering bike lanes, but they’re also contributing to classist over-policing, some Californians say. Scooters by Lime, a Bird competitor, were filmed announcing “please unlock me to ride me, or I’ll call the police,” when a person bumped into them. Lime told The Guardian it changed the alarm, but not before an Oakland, California councilmember highlighted the particular threat the automated 911 call could pose for African-Americans, who face disproportionate police violence.
In San Francisco, which is experiencing soaring income inequality as Silicon Valley companies and low-income locals compete for limited space, vandals cracked into a Bird and exposed the valuable motherboard inside, Makezine reported last year. Tech blogger Jamie Zawinski estimated the interior electronics were worth about $70, and argued that, due to a city ruling against the scooter companies, it was legal for San Franciscans to gut the vehicles for parts.
“Maybe you can re-purpose this parasitic, Commons-destroying litter into something fun,” he wrote.
“We’re looking at a future filled with 18650-based Powerwalls from discarded electric scooters and quadcopters built around scooter motors filling the skies,” Hackaday wrote of the scooter modification movement. “This is cyberpunk, and we can’t wait to see the other builds these scooters will become.”
Some less technologically inclined locals have still managed to wreak havoc on the scooters. During a protest against “techsploitation” and rising rents, San Francisco housing activists threw scooters and smoke grenades in front of a fleet of buses transporting tech workers from the city to Silicon Valley campuses.
Elsewhere in the city, scooter opponents have disabled the vehicles with stickers, slashed their tires, hacked them apart in public, and pooped on them, Mel Magazine reported. The Instagram account BirdGraveyard documents people (often teens) setting the scooters on fire, dropping them off tall buildings, and hauling them into the ocean.
But for some hackers, a free ride is revenge enough.
By the end of the Adam22 video, the teenager has taught multiple strangers to hack the scooters, and a small fleet of riders are spinning around the sidewalk on jailbroken vehicles.
“I’m gonna scam it as long as I can until they fix it,” one man says.