Next-Gen Scooter Tech Could Help Address City Pain Points

A California tech company is testing remote-operated and autonomous scooters at a site in Georgia. The hope is that the technology will better connect riders while also helping to manage them in the public right-of-way.

by / October 24, 2019
E-scooters clustered on a sidewalk. New self-driving technology is billed as a way to remotely reposition the devices by operators. EHFXC/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

The next generation of small electric scooters may just guide themselves right to a rider's door.

Tortoise, one of the newest startups to emerge from the San Francisco micro-mobility landscape, wants to outfit scooters with about $100 of autonomous technology that will allow the devices to be remote-guided or repositioned, at speeds of less than 5 mph.

A camera on the front of the device would send video data to a remote operator who can drive the scooter to where it needs to be. Ideally, the scooters would be repositioned to another location less than five miles away.

“Our technology is not about full autonomy,” remarked Dmitry Shevelenko, co-founder of Tortoise. “It’s about using autonomy software for the easy parts of the trip.”

Tortoise, Shevelenko explains, is not a scooter company, or a hardware manufacturer. The company wants to partner with scooter operators to reposition the devices for a fee, paid per mile.  

The company plans to begin testing its concept at the Curiosity Lab, a new autonomous vehicle test site in Peachtree Corners, Ga., where 100 of the ghost scooters will be deployed. The city-owned Curiosity Lab sits within a 500-acre office park where some 7,500 people work, and another 1,000 residents call home.

"The expectation is that people will use the scooters to transport themselves to other offices, lunch and shopping," said Betsy Plattenburg, executive director of the Curiosity Lab. 

According to Shevelenko, driverless scooters could fit well within a low-density, suburban-type environment. 

“Say you have an empty stretch of sidewalk in front of you… you can use the autonomy software. But whenever you have a sensitive part of the trip — you’re crossing an intersection, there’s a pedestrian in front of you, the autonomy software doesn’t have 100 percent full confidence that it knows what’s there — the vehicle will stop itself, and a remote tele-operator, which can be anyone, anywhere in the world, can take control of the vehicle … and safely drive it to its next destination,” Shevelenko explained.

Another issue Tortoise hopes to address is the carbon footprint caused by scooters by the requirement that they be gathered and redistributed, generally by gas-powered vehicles, making them not near as environmentally salient as some users may think.

“The purpose of all electric transportation is to help drive down that carbon footprint,” said Shevelenko.

Whether, or when, self-driving scooters become a common occurrence on city streets may be a question as elusive as the rollout of autonomous vehicles themselves. However, a number of auto-makers, highway safety officials, urban planners and others are actively working in this new mobility space, testing the applicability of the technology across a range of use cases and settings.

And for cities eyeing yet another mobility device entering the public right-of-way, officials should return to basic questions around what are the city’s transportation goals, and how could these devices help to achieve those, said Thom Rickert, VP and emerging risks specialist at Trident Public Risk Solutions.

“The different vehicles and different concepts that we’re seeing for micro-mobility, it’s going to continue to be an emerging landscape, and it’s one that needs to be involved in a city’s overall transportation, and in a large scale, in their urban planning,” said Rickert.

Cities should form “innovation zones” as a place to not only deploy and test new forms of mobility, but conduct education campaigns with the public, and gain a larger understanding of the infrastructure and other needs of different devices, said Rickert.

“Let us take this five-block area and form a cooperation between academia and educational institutions. Let's do it on a campus — a downtown campus. Work with the engineering department, with the psychology department, with the urban planning department and lets see how these things work,” Rickert offered.

Shevelenko stressed Tortoise wants a clear dialogue with different cities before AV scooters enter into any market.

“We will only deploy when we get some sort of written approval from the relevant public authority,” said Shevelenko.

“These things are coming,” said Rickert. “They have to be tested in closed areas. You have to gather the data, and get the public used to it… explain the safety and all the other things you’re going to have to do.

“Does it have a place?” he asked. “Absolutely. Will we see more? Absolutely.”

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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