A fleet of remote-operated scooters is being deployed and tested in Peachtree Corners, Ga. The pilot program was set to launch earlier this year, but the novel coronavirus delayed those plans.
The COVID-19 crisis all but sidelined most app-based forms of micro-transport, like sharable bikes and scooters. As a number of states and cities begin to ease restrictions and the public slowly becomes more mobile, operators are relaunching the devices for use.
A project in Peachtree Corners, Ga., has deployed a fleet of about 100 scooters. What sets these apart from virtually all others, however, is their ability to be remote-operated, allowing the devices to be moved without having an actual person riding the scooter.
The scooters are equipped with a system of cameras, sensors and other tech to allow them to be controlled by an off-site operator, which means the vehicles can be more easily gathered and redeployed without the need for staffing to locate the scooter, load it into a vehicle and bring it to another location. The scooters can also be guided to a rider’s front door for an even more seamless user experience.
“The analogy I like to use is, imagine if you had a taxi service where the taxi driver could only wait at the location of their last drop-off, for their next pick-up. It’s comical, but that’s how scooters work today,” remarked Dmitry Shevelenko, co-founder of Tortoise, the San Francisco-based tech company providing the remote-operational abilities, speaking with Government Technology in March.
The project to deploy the remote-operated scooters was set to launch in mid-March. Then came the novel coronavirus pandemic, sideling non-essential services. Prior to the outbreak, the Peachtree Corners City Council approved its “Shared Micromobility Device Program Policy,” which states, “each micromobility device shall be equipped with self-locking and automated repositioning technologies.”
Peachtree Corners is also home to the Curiosity Lab, a 1.5-mile autonomous vehicle, city-owned test track, within a 500-acre office park, helping to establish the Atlanta suburb as a launchpad for next-generation transportation technology.
The pilot project, a partnership among Go X, Tortoise and the city, will operate at the Curiosity Lab. Go X created the scooters and ride-hailing app.
Beyond making the scooters easier to gather, charge and redeploy — along with clearing up sidewalk clutter — the Tortoise technology opens the door to expanding the applications and scalability for small, remote-operated, robot-like devices to serve any number of use cases ranging from deliveries to door-to-door mobility. These applications have been made all the more prescient in the last two months when the coronavirus altered so much of how Americans conduct their daily lives.
“We’re a platform for moving all kinds of light electric vehicles. So our plan was always to power delivery carts and robots on the sidewalk,” said Shevelenko in a recent interview with Government Technology. “We’re pretty aggressively accelerating around the use case of groceries, a sidewalk delivery cart, now that you have this pretty profound shift towards ecommerce for groceries, where people are ordering groceries from a grocery store maybe 10 blocks away from their house, because they’re afraid to go into the store.”
The scooters in Peachtree Corners can be fitted with a removable cargo container, transitioning the device into a temporary delivery robot.
How the COVID-19 crisis reshuffles transportation is an issue of endless speculation, as prognosticators anticipate a possible decline in transit ridership out of fear of being in a closed-in space with other people. Transit operators have answered these worries with stepped up cleaning and sanitation, as well as other protocols like masks requirements.
Scooter operators and micro-mobility advocates see an opening to attract new users, who are looking for an open-air ride. The company Scoot has announced it is redeploying its Bird scooters on the streets of San Francisco, starting May 20.
“The big story is, public fear, somewhat rightfully, of using public transit,” said Shevelenko.
Also yet to be known is the future of autonomous vehicle development and the technologies powering it.
Edward Straub, executive director of the Automated Vehicle Safety Consortium, sees the possibility for new use cases for AVs.
“We may see, for example, greater demand for deliveries,” said Straub, during a Transportation Research Board webinar at the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine last week.
“As people adjust, it will impact things like the infrastructure and the regulations,” he added. “We’re already seeing certain roads not being open to vehicles so pedestrians can maintain greater distribution. And if we do end up going back to shared and shared mobility in transit, will there be requirements for distancing and queuing on the sidewalks, and loading and unloading? It’ll be interesting to see how these use cases play out, how the technology adapts.”