A different kind of shared electric scooter has landed in a small suburb outside Atlanta, Georgia. These scooters look bulkier than your average shared two-wheelers, with extra components attached to the deck and handlebars. And they’re also not technically two-wheelers, but rather four-wheelers with an added set of training wheels in the middle of the deck. That’s because they’re the first remote-controlled scooters to launch into commercial service in the US.
These are not self-driving scooters, although they will be partly powered with autonomous technology. The scooters will be controlled by a team of remote employees who are located over 1,700 miles away in Mexico City. These teleoperators watch a live feed from the scooter’s cameras, as well as monitor other sensor data, as they use Xbox controllers to move the scooter around a business park called Peachtree Corners to the north of Atlanta. These remote-controlled scooters can then be moved around a city on demand, without the hassle of contracting the work to teams of amateur scooter hunters.
Slightly crazy? Sure. But the trio of companies backing the venture — Go X, the scooter operator; Tortoise, the company outfitting the scooters with remote capabilities; and Curiosity Labs, a “smart city” incubator located at Peachtree Corners — are convinced that this is the future of shared micromobility.
Starting this week, around 100 scooters will be available for rent at the business park. Using the Go X app, customers can put in a request for a scooter, and within minutes, a remote-controlled scooter will arrive at the pickup spot, ready to be ridden. The scooters use their training wheels to maintain balance during their trip, and a team of Go X operators are on hand in case a scooter runs into any obstacles, loses power, or gets knocked over en route.
According to Tortoise CEO Dmitry Shevelenko, customers will enjoy the convenience of having a scooter that can be brought right to them, while cities and municipalities will appreciate the lack of sidewalk clutter and other costs associated with dockless shared mobility.
“You don’t have to just be lucky that there will be a scooter that’s within walking distance of your house in the morning,” Shevelenko told The Verge, “you can actually request it to come to you and wait at home till it does.”
The problem Shevelenko is trying to solve is pretty obvious. Right now, shared 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. Scooters get damaged, diminishing their life span. 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 a city. 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.
And now with the coronavirus pandemic, Shevelenko says there’s even more reason to outfit shared scooters with remote and semi-autonomous capabilities. That way, the scooters can be directed to a team of cleaners for sanitizing between rides.
Go X is just one of several scooter operators working with Tortoise. The startup has plans to announce some additional deployments of its technology later this year. Those will likely include purpose-built three-wheeled scooters, such as Segway’s recently announced T60 “roboscooter.”
“We’re not going to be deploying any more retrofitted scooters,” Shevelenko said.
Shared scooter services are notoriously money-losing operations. But Shevelenko insists teleoperation — and eventually more autonomous systems — is the way to cure the scooter industry’s persistent unit economic problems, and that’s including the added costs of the components and the remote operators. He cites an MIT study that found that scooter operators can get 10 times more utilization out of each scooter by dynamically rebalancing their fleet throughout the day rather than just once in the morning.
“There’s a lot of juice to be squeezed,” he said.