Thursday, 21/9/2017 | 12:06 UTC+0

Mellow makes almost any skateboard electric

Electric skateboards are still fairly novel in the grand scheme of “ways to get around,” but for an inherently exciting idea, they’ve gotten awfully boring pretty quick. Boosted still makes the best one, and only a few competitors truly pressure that status. Meanwhile, a China-fueled race to the bottom has flooded the market with boards so full of compromise that many aren’t worth their more palatable $100 to $500 price tags.

That’s why it was so refreshing to finally stand on Mellow Board’s first product after originally seeing it on Kickstarter years ago. Because it’s not even technically a board. At a really high level, the Mellow Drive is just a battery, a magnesium mold, a wireless remote, and some in-wheel motors that you can attach to almost any board to make it electric. But it’s also much more than that. It’s a smarter electric skateboard than anything I’ve ridden, and it feels like one of the first genuine evolutions since the category’s inception. Of course, it better be, because with a post-Kickstarter price tag of about $1,700, it’s also one of the most expensive.

First, the ride. I tried Mellow on a longboard and a cruiser, and both were a blast. The longboard was a semi-flexible deck about the same length of a Boosted Board, but a little thicker, stiffer, and heavier. The cruiser was something more akin to a “normal” skateboard, but almost double the typical width, and much lighter than the longboard.

Mellow was super smooth on both of these boards. There are four different riding modes: Rookie, Eco, Pro, and Endless. I’ll get to Endless in a bit, because it’s an idea that truly deserves its own discussion. But Rookie, Eco, and Pro are similar to the variable riding modes on most other quality electric skateboards.

Rookie limits the top speed and accelerates slowly, and is really just for beginners. Eco and Pro have the same top speed of about 25 miles per hour (40 kmh), but Pro accelerates to that speed more aggressively.

Mellow is similar to a Boosted Board in it’s fastest mode, in that you have to sort of brace yourself to account for the instant torque that comes with an electric motor performing at its peak. But it’s not as scary as a Boosted Board can be in those moments. This is due to the fact that Mellow uses in-wheel motors instead of Boosted’s belt-driven system, and it’s also because Mellow’s cofounders are purposely aiming for a smoother acceleration curve. (I mean, it’s right there in the name of the company.)

So a Mellow-equipped board isn’t going to beat a Boosted in a short drag race. That’s fine, because the rest of the experience is butter. The acceleration in both Eco and Pro modes is a good balance of fun and exciting, and the in-wheel motors allow the board to glide when you eventually back off the throttle.

The braking is also fantastic, on par with the standard that Boosted has set. Braking is a usually overlooked dynamic when it comes to electric skateboards, which is insane, but Mellow did a really good job making sure its tech can stop you as well as it gets you going.

A big part of this, co-founder and CTO Kilian Green explains to me, is that the Mellow team built a resistor into the housing that helps take some of the brunt of the regenerative braking. Regenerative braking works by reversing the motors, which also turns the board’s kinetic energy back into electricity so it can be fed back into the battery. But batteries can only handle taking back a percentage of what they put out, and also can’t recover energy when the battery is fully charged, so the resistor acts as an overflow. It turns that electricity into heat energy, which then dissipates across a heat sync on the bottom of the battery system. It’s an idea that comes from much larger modes of transportation, like trains, so it’s fascinating to see it applied here.

Next to braking, the thing that electric skateboard companies tend to most commonly get wrong is the remote. And when I first looked at Mellow’s remote, I sort of froze, because it looked like a really bad idea. It’s a candy-bar shaped rectangle with rounded corners, but there’s no trigger or joystick or wheel to be found.

Instead, it works more like shifting tectonic plates. The bottom section stays put when you grip it in your hand, and you thumb the top section forward (to go) or back (to brake). It is a weird idea, and the thing that controls your speed and braking is typically a bad place for weird ideas.

So you could imagine my surprise when I discovered that it actually works really well. The spring inside the remote provides the right amount of resistance to really give you a feel for the throttle control. The remote is made out of a nice, matte plastic, so it doesn’t slip easily. And you can quickly change riding modes with a tap of the button at the bottom. Yes, a Mellow Drive is going to set you back a lot of money, but at the very least that money isn’t going to waste.

All of this is great news if you’re just looking for another head to head competitor to the best electric skateboards out there. Mellow Drive is smooth and fast like a Boosted. The battery is easily removable, like an Inboard. It has a good 7.5 to 10 mile range, and Mellow sells spare batteries for folks with range anxiety and deep pockets. It’s also rated IP65, which means Mellow Drive’s interior is well-guarded from dust and dirt buildup and is also able to handle puddles and rain.

But like I said, there’s more to Mellow. For one, the 99Wh battery — which is just small enough to fly per FAA rules — has a USB port, so you can use it to charge your devices when you’re not skating. And it has the added benefit of being modular, so you can hook it onto basically any board you like.

The real kicker is that fourth riding mode: Endless mode. It’s like riding a pedal-assist electric bike, but on a skateboard. You hop on the board, give it a kick push, and the motor controller will find and match your speed. It then slowly ramps that speed down by 30 RPM per second, meaning you can meander down the road without pushing for at least another minute or two.

It’s a subtly smart feature, and it made for a really unique riding experience on both boards. I gave each one a few kicks, and that alone was enough to carry me around a corner, down a slope, and back up a small hill a few thousand feet away from where I started. Another kick or two and the board carried me even further. It felt like I was on my own normal skateboard, only enhanced, like I had a really strong wind at my back but without ever feeling unsettled. It’s as if a ghost is giving you a push, Angels in the Outfield but on pavement.

Endless mode, as the name implies, lets you get more mileage out of the battery than you would riding in the other modes. There’s also something about the mental state it puts you in. It’s a much more relaxed ride than the normal power modes, even if you still have to hang onto the controller to brake. As much as I love the superhuman feeling of screaming around a city on an electric skateboard, the idea of a kick assisted mode feels like the kind of novel addition I’d really get some use out of.

It’s also a sign of how the Mellow team wants to treat this product going forward now that it’s finally hitting the market. Because there’s a ton of smarts inside both the battery’s management system as well as in the motor controller board.

Green showed me a development version of the Mellow app that was relaying all sorts of information in real time, from basic stuff like the throttle position and reception strength of the remote, to the number of charge cycles the battery has run through. But the board also knows which mode the user rides in most often, and information like how much time the board spends operating in different temperature ranges.

Endless mode is just one way Mellow puts all this data to use. Another is that the board’s battery will never just drop dead; once it reaches a certain threshold, it will taper the power output so that you’re not stuck riding a totally dead board. Maybe the best one is a pure safety feature: if the board gets kicked or rolls away, it can tell that it’s on its own and apply the brakes to stop from running into a wall, other people, or traffic.

Those are three pretty clever applications out of the gate, and so I’m excited to see what else Mellow can do. The Mellow team is excited, too. Green and CEO Johannes Schewe tell me the company recently finished fulfilling the original Kickstarter orders, which resulted in a strong high five from the pair. It survived the often perilous process of crowdfunding, and while copycats of the design are already all over China, the company’s finally taking preorders for Mellow Drives that will ship in October.

“We’ll be improving the system as we go from iteration to iteration, and if a customer has a problem, then we’re going to take that seriously and work that into what we’re doing,” Green says. “We want to improve the whole category of electric rideables.”

They’re certainly well equipped for that challenge. Mellow has a skateboard-sized version of the kind of rig cars are tested on. (“We can measure a tremendous amount of data — torque, speeds, temperatures,” Green says with a smile. “We can create over 2 million data points per second.”) They have a strategic investment from (and a production partnership with) TQ Systems, which makes electronics for companies like Airbus and Siemens.

And, much like their biggest competitor, they have broad ambitions beyond skateboards. Schewe thinks Mellow’s modular, smart battery and motor technology could apply to all sorts of different form factors.

But for now, Mellow’s focused on boards. And if you’ve got the cash, it’s a welcome new addition to the field.

#gadgetbingo

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