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Can autonomous scooters solve sidewalk clutter?

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Tortoise believes its tech can help reposition scooters and make micromobility more efficient

A dockless electric scooter on its side on a city sidewalk.
A Bird scooter knocked over on a sidewalk in Oakland, California. A new startup, Tortoise, wants to help scooter systems perform better with technology that would autonomously reposition vehicles.

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.

Tortoise’s first demo will be at the Atlanta Tech Park in the city of Peachtree Corners, Georgia, which will go live later this year with roughly 100 scooters. In addition, the company is also working on launching trials in Vilnius, Lithuania, and a yet-to-be-determined market in Spain.

According to Shevelenko, at the jump, the scooters will be 100 percent remote-controlled by operators working out of the company’s engineering center in Mexico City, who will be paid fair market wages for Mexican workers. They’ll slowly introduce more autonomous control as they get more comfortable with operations and ease riders and pedestrians into the concept. Tortoise currently has 15 employees, not including the remote operators, and wouldn’t publicly discuss its funding.

Tortoise is also working with a suite of partners, including Wind, Gotcha, CityBee, Go X, and Shared, all smaller players in the micromobility space, to have its technology deployed in their respective markets. Manufacturers like ACTON, Tronx Motors, Veemo and YIMI will also incorporate Tortoise technology with the bikes and scooters that they develop for operators.

In addition, the company has created an advisory board of former transit officials, including: Beverly Scott, the former CEO of several U.S. transit systems, including the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA); Brooks Rainwater, director of the Center for City Solutions at the National League of Cities; and Daniel Correa, the Obama administration’s lead on smart cities. Tortoise views itself as a partner to cities, as a way to make larger investments in micromobility more viable and successful. The question remains as to whether autonomy can be a timely technological solution.