Before e-scooters were released on the footpaths of New Zealand, one company was already asking authorities if it could double the power of its scooters.
Within days of the first low-power e-scooters being released in New Zealand by California-based company Lime last October, the Wellington e-scooter startup Flamingo wanted to double the allowed wattage.
Only scooters under 300 watts are allowed on footpaths without conditions like speed limits or helmets, which NZTA can impose for e-scooters between 300W and 600W.
Emails obtained by RNZ show Flamingo asked the Transport Agency for a special ruling to allow scooters up to 600 watts, the limit above which a scooter would be considered a motor vehicle and would need to be certified and registered.
The agency's principal engineer told Flamingo to talk to policy officials.
"If you want the agency to consider a Gazette notice for devices above 300 watts, I would recommend you discuss your proposals with them because they will have to present it to our Board and the MoT," the engineer said.
At this stage, a top policy official had already told another company (from Palmerston North; its name is redacted):
"I agree with many of your comments that suggest it would be better if we changed the law to allow for higher wattage e-scooters. Certainly, I expect we will
consider components like this when updating the classifications in our legislation."
The agency said it rejected Flamingo's request on safety grounds and because high-powered scooters come under moped rules.
Flamingo said it acknowledged the agency had rejected its request "at this time", but believed it could be looked at in future.
Flamingo ended up using 300 watt scooters, and yesterday released another 300 scooters in Christchurch.
It said a speed limit of 25km/h would be safer than having wattage limits.
"Flamingo believes blanket speed limit restrictions on footpaths and roads for e-scooters would enable a safer and more reliable transport solution, " it told RNZ in a statement.
"Restricting motor power does not account for terrain and the weight of the rider.
"Queensland ... recently implemented new legislation which removed power restrictions on e-scooters and added a speed restriction of 25kph."
NZTA emails, obtained by RNZ, show the agency was unclear what wattage e-scooters from the first operator in New Zealand, Lime, were capable of, well after they were already operating Christchurch and Auckland.
In September 2018, the agency told Lime it was "important" it saw the scooter specifications.
Lime told the agency the specs were in Chinese, and the agency could get them translated.
However, it then gave the agency some specifications in English, and said scooters would be kept under 300W by setting the accelerator mode to the lowest level.
NZTA emailed: "Can you tell me how you can assure us that an operator cannot simply turn this mode off and revert it to type?"
Lime responded: "I can't think of any ways that this could be enforced. I suppose it would just be more of an honor system ... Open to ideas."
In November, Lime admitted the specs it gave NZTA in September were not the right ones anyway - they were for a different scooter not operated in New Zealand.
Emails from November show that formal accusations were made against Lime, suggesting that its scooters were already above 300W.
The agency asked Lime to run tests, but also asked Lime to suggest what those tests should be. No independent tests have been done.
Lime's tests showed maximum power of under 300W, and nothing happening on the ground suggested otherwise, the agency told RNZ in a statement.
"NZTA is satisfied that Lime scooters are operating within the bounds of the definition of wheeled recreational devices and that further, independent testing isn't required at this time."
In September 2018, e-scooter companies got the all-clear from NZTA for their scooters to be used on New Zealand footpaths.
However emails leading up to this date show NZTA had reservations in declaring the scooters were not classified as motor vehicles.
In late August a Ministry of Transport email said: "There is a view at NZTA that these scooters are 'motor vehicles'... I was advised informally that this has led NZTA to advise potential scooter hire operations that they cannot establish in New Zealand or at least may not be legal if they do."
NZTA operational standards manager Craig Basher wrote in an email: "I am not sure that we should be declaring them to 'not be a vehicle' as this would place them outside our regulatory regime."
But Mr Basher's 28 August suggestion to have a "more robust discussion" about e-scooter classification was set aside and a few days later, on 4 September, the ministry said it agreed that NZTA should declare that 300W e-scooters were not motor vehicles.
On 4 September NZTA head of policy Mark Rounthwaite said in an email: "We've poured through this with a number of our legal and policy people and still keep coming up with the image that these vehicles need to be licenced and entry certified to operate on our footpaths. Bit nonsensical in respect to the intent behind the Recreation Device classification."
Amending the Land Transport Act made sense but would take time and "there is a feeling here that we are moments away from being put in a publicly undefended position hence are looking for an interim solution", he said.
The police, for pragmatic reasons, had not cracked down on e-scooters ridden on footpaths unless they had to, Mr Rounthwaite said.
"The difference of late and hence the source of our urgency is the appearance of commercial entities who want to set up ride-sharing businesses. They are not in a position to invest on a 'wink n nod' that while their product will be illegal, at the moment no one is enforcing it."
The e-scooter declaration was "obviously ... a significant change in stance", NZTA's principal engineer said in an email.