A new startup, Tortoise, believes that combining two of the latest trends in transportation technology, electric scooters and autonomous vehicles, can create a more efficient, sustainable transit option.
Founder and president Dmitry Shevelenko, a former Uber employee, says Tortoise doesn’t want to be a new operator, it simply wants to be a technology partner making other scooter systems better. With the ability to move scooters without human operators—which require more vehicle traffic, carbon emissions, as well as hourly wages—Tortoise’s technology can move scooters that are obstructing sidewalks or driveways to city-approved parking spots, public transit hubs, even someone’s front doorstep. Big operators, such as Bird, have said that the challenges of unit economic, including costly repositioning, are a significant focus going forward.
Shevelenko, who helped Uber expand into new modes of transportation such as Jump Bikes and the public ticketing system Masabi, believes that this kind of retrieval and repositioning solution is a missing piece to making micromobility more reliable, easy to access, and ultimately successful.
“We feel an existential need to make this happen, so micromobility can have a vibrant future,” says Shevelenko.
Don’t get too carried away with visions of city streets crowded with swarms of speeding ghost scooters. The initial market focus of Tortoise will be suburbs and low-density areas, where, due to the distances covered and the challenges of repositioning, it’s harder to fully utilize electric scooters.
Tortoise-enabled scooters also won’t be totally autonomous. The vehicles, which will run at 5 miles an hour during repositioning, will reply on a combination of autonomy when roads are clear and remote control when other vehicles and pedestrians are in sight (remote drivers will utilize cameras and steer scooters with small training wheels on their sides). The company’s routing software has been designed to avoid areas of heavy pedestrian traffic.
“We need that flexibility to handle difficult terrain and different variables because actual humans will be on the road,” says Shevelenko.
The reason so many scooters are tossed aside and knocked over, Shevelenko says, is that they’re left in areas that block pedestrian traffic. Tortoise will move vehicles after rides are finished, with no more than five minutes of lag time between a completed ride and remote repositioning (if the scooter is knocked over, Tortoise will flag the operator). Recently, a string of lawsuits by disability advocates claims that misplaced scooters have created such a hazard that they’re violating federal law.
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