Remote-controlled scooters are coming, and Tortoise is (slowly) leading the charge

Remote-controlled scooters are coming, and Tortoise is (slowly) leading the charge

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

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