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E-Scooter Hackers Risk Their Lives Chasing For Speed

Greg Joseph said his modified KickScooter Max abruptly stopped working while he was riding it / Segway. Greg Joseph needed a way to navigate...

Greg Joseph said his modified KickScooter Max abruptly stopped working while he was riding it / Segway.
Greg Joseph needed a way to navigate San Antonio that would let him avoid parking expenses and do some occasional off-roading. He also wanted to go very fast.

In 2021, he used the stimulus check he received from the government to order a $700 Segway-Ninebot electric scooter on Amazon. Soon after, he downloaded an Android app to boost the scooter’s software-restricted top speed from 18 to 22 miles an hour, he said. 

Two months later, during a downhill ride, the scooter’s internal wiring melted. “Turns out I over-modded it,” said the 21-year-old Joseph, a concert set builder who calls himself a tinkerer. The scooter never turned back on.

The surge in popularity of electric scooters and other battery-powered vehicles has created a subculture of enthusiasts who are modifying their rides. They say hacking their scooters gives them a more thrilling and efficient mode of transportation.

Manufacturers warn that altering these devices presents hazards—yes, crashes and explosions have happened. You are probably not wrong if you have ever thought a scooter raced by you at 40 miles an hour.

Segway-Ninebot doesn’t condone modifying its e-scooters, said a spokeswoman for the company. For the modders, though, the risks are worth it. Be it cars or computers, people have always loved to tinker with their purchases to truly make them their own.

Altering the capabilities of scooters can be a cheap way to have a lot of fun. And sometimes, modders even help companies refine their products by acting as a form of crowdsourced research and development. 

“Modders are creative and knowledgeable people with fresh ideas that push products beyond their capabilities and add features that manufacturers did not think of or believe were possible,” says Ralph Clarke, technical support lead at the electric vehicle company Okai USA. But he warned that altering e-scooters presents liability risks and safety concerns. 

The modders’ club

Manufacturers intentionally limit speeds as safety measures and to adhere to requirements set by retailers. They also comply with standards set by UL Solutions, a leading safety science lab. 

These limitations are particularly important for riders who might be less experienced. Local laws and regulations often dictate the maximum speeds allowed for e-scooters, too.

The restrictions have other benefits for users. By imposing speed limits, manufacturers can optimize battery life and extend the scooter’s range between charges. Excessive speeds can put extra strain on the scooter’s components, potentially leading to faster wear and tear or even mechanical failures.

“Whatever the rules are, they’re probably there for a good reason,” said TJ Compagnone, chief product officer at Unagi Scooters. For modders, though, out-of-the-box isn’t good enough. There are two ways to get an e-scooter to perform beyond manufacturer specifications.

The simplest and cheapest method typically involves apps developed for Android phones, modders say. ( Apple’s App Store policies make it harder to use an iPhone to access and change files and settings required for hacking.) After the phone and scooter are paired via Bluetooth, users can adjust power output and max speed. Some use the apps to add additional antitheft features—like forcing the scooter to drive slowly or not start at all if you don’t turn it on a certain way.

The more complicated approach requires opening up the machine and messing with its internal components, with special tools and technical know-how. People might choose to upgrade or alter motors, batteries or throttles. Videos on YouTube and TikTok show riders cutting wires and rigging new battery packs to get more out of their scooters. 

“A subset of the population are treating them like cars,” said Jason Kenagy, chief executive of the e-bike maker JackRabbit Mobility. “They hot-rod them.” With either method, tuning the scooters incorrectly can cause malfunctions and render them unusable. It might also void manufacturers’ warranties.

Enthusiasts often use channels on Discord and Telegram to offer troubleshooting tips on modifications. The channel on Discord is prominent, amassing over 24,000 members globally who compare notes, celebrate successes and exchange information in model-specific subgroups.

Breaking speed limits

Roland Scheffler, a 17-year-old studying IT at a vocational school near Hanover, Germany, turned to a Telegram channel for advice in August after breaking his Segway-Ninebot scooter.

Ten months earlier, he had found the scooter cheap online—already modified. He said he asked the seller to return it to its manufacturer’s settings, but the seller couldn’t. Scheffler bought it anyway because of the $340 price, and he needed it for commuting 4 miles round trip to school and 8 miles round trip to work.

He stays within the speed limit when riding in nearby big cities. But during rides in rural areas around his hometown, he pushes the scooter as fast as it can go—about 40 miles an hour. 

“You feel free,” Scheffler said. “I love the danger.” He visited a friend in southern Germany on Aug. 12 and rode down a steep hill to show his friend how safe the scooter was. Scheffler saw the odometer creep up from 25 miles to 39 miles an hour. When halfway down the slope as he braked to slow down, the front wheel abruptly locked.

The teen was thrown from the scooter—shoulder and head hitting the pavement. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. Part of the scooter’s stem broke from the accident. “I just laid there in pain, hoping I wouldn’t need to call an ambulance,” Scheffler said. “My scooter wasn’t going the legal speed limit, and I was scared I would get into conflict with the police.”

He was able to shake it off and limp back to his friend’s house with the scooter. Scheffler welded together parts to get it to drive again, though the brakes don’t work as well as before, he said. He still doesn’t ride the scooter any slower, he said. He plans to keep it until next year—when he intends to buy a motorcycle.