You may have noticed that scooter companies typically have short names — usually around four or five letters — that are meant to invoke feelings of flying or zooming across an urban landscape unencumbered. Think Bird, Spin, Scoot, Bolt, Jump, Wheels, etc.
Tortoise is not a scooter company. That should be obvious from the startup’s name, which invokes a character who is slow but clever, ultimately defeating a much faster opponent. Tortoise is working with scooter companies to introduce a seemingly radical concept: scooters that can move autonomously across a city and reposition themselves, without a rider. That’s right. Autonomous scooters.
Well, sort of. Remote-operated might be a better description, because Tortoise wants to use autonomous technology combined with teleoperation to reposition and rebalance dockless, shared e-scooters in cities. And while the image of ghostly two-wheelers rolling down sidewalks completely on their own may seem crazy, Tortoise co-founder and CEO Dmitry Shevelenko is convinced that scooter companies and cities will embrace the idea when they hear what’s at stake.
It goes something like this: right now, e-scooters are gathered up every night by teams of independent contractors for charging and rebalancing. These freelance scooter hunters get paid based on how many scooters they can collect each night, which has led to arguments, fights, and the occasional weapon being flashed. Scooter get damaged, diminishing their lifespan. Fraud and hoarding are rampant. It’s a massive logistical challenge and can be dangerous for the freelancers involved.
Meanwhile, riders have a difficult time tracking down available scooters when they want one. They all end up cluttered in a handful of places rather than spread evenly around. And cities have complained about the companies failing to place enough scooters in low-income and minority communities to ensure equal distribution across economic lines.
Enter Tortoise, which is proposing a system of remote-controlled scooters that can be moved around a city on demand, without the hassle of contracting out the work to teams of amateur scooter hunters. And because the idea of fully autonomous scooters is a little absurd — imagine a self-driving scooter losing signal or power in the middle of a busy intersection — Tortoise is relying on a combination of autonomous software and a staff of remote tele-operators to control the scooters.
“Our first deployments are actually going to be 100 percent tele-operated, but over time, we’re going to increase the percentage of autonomy,” Shevelenko said in an interview. “But it’s never going to be fully autonomous.”
Tortoise is giving the reference designs for how to make a scooter drive itself to the manufacturers free of charge. The technology is low-cost and fairly simple to install. And the camera and sensors are cheap thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones. “We’re basically taking the components that are inside smartphones, and putting them on the outside of the scooter,” he said. Meanwhile, Tortoise’s teleoperation center will be based in Mexico City, where remote operators will monitor the scooters and step in when they invariably get tripped up by an obstacle.
To start out, Tortoise is working with a number of scooter manufacturers (Acton, TronX Motors, Veemo, and Yimi) and shared fleet operators (Wind, CityBee, Go X, and Shared) to put its vision of semi-autonomous scooters into operation. It also struck a deal with the city of Peachtree Corners, Georgia, to test out its technology at the Atlanta Tech Park.
Tortoise is particularly focused on the suburbs, where the need for last-mile mobility solutions to connect people to transit is much greater. “If you’re in a suburb and you leave a scooter outside your house, the likelihood that it will be useful to anybody else but you is pretty much nil,” Shevelenko said. “We think automated repositioning is essential [in those communities].”
Shevelenko has served as an adviser to Uber on its partnerships with Getaround and Masabi, as well as the ride-hailing company’s acquisition of bike-share operator Jump. He founded Tortoise with David Graham, who has a background in vision systems, robotics, electrical engineering, and 3D printing.
Of course, Tortoise isn’t the only one working to develop semi-autonomous scooters. Segway-Ninebot recently introduced a three-wheeled self-driving scooter called the KickScooter T60. And Uber is rumored to be interested in developing self-riding bikes and scooters, but it hasn’t confirmed that publicly.
Whether an autonomous scooter would address all of the challenges of a shared micromobility service is unclear. What is clear is that creating a fleet of self-riding scooters could be incredibly costly. Eric Paul Dennis, a Michigan-based transportation systems analyst for the Center for Automotive Research, posted a thread on Twitter recently calling it “the worst new #mobility idea yet.”
Shevelenko identified regulatory hurdles as the prime obstacle to getting autonomous or remote-controlled scooters into service. And he pointed to early tests by delivery robot startups like Starship Technologies as evidence that our society is becoming more comfortable with (and less hostile toward) robots in our midst. And scooters may just be the beginning for the type of service Tortoise envisions spearheading.
“Low speed autonomy comes before high speed autonomy,” Shevelenko said. “And of all the verticals in the low speed automation space, micromobility is by far the best one. In one fell swoop you’re increasing demand because you’re able to get more rentals per day. You’re impacting the cost side on the recharging labor costs. And you’re creating a public policy benefit because you’re solving this clutter and obstruction issue.”
Tortoise’s software stack is “form factor agnostic,” he added. “So we eventually want to be powering the routing autonomy and teleoperations with delivery robots, security robots, cleaning robots. We have this broader vision of being an AWS, moving anything per mile. And we think the most logical place to start is scooters and e-bikes.”