Illustration: Caresse Haaser/Axios

San Francisco startup Tortoise is working on (eventually) applying self-driving tech developed for autos to scooters and bikes. The goal: eliminate the need for human labor that rental companies now use to ferry vehicles around, redistributing them across a city or getting them charged.

The big picture: With "micromobility" potentially emerging as the next big wave of transportation, companies are looking to make scooters and other small vehicles as efficient and convenient as possible. Cutting labor costs and making sure vehicles are always nearby when a customer needs one is Tortoise's pitch.

Driving the news: Tortoise says that it has an agreement with the city of Peachtree Corners in Georgia to deploy and test its scooters on its streets, as well as partnerships with manufacturers like ACTON and Veemo and rental companies like Gotcha and Go X.

How it works: At least for the initial pilot tests, Tortoise's scooters will be fully controlled remotely by the company's staff. Eventually, it will begin integrating autonomous capabilities as cities get more comfortable with the technology.

  • Tortoise has developed reference designs that manufacturers, at rental companies' request, can use to build scooters equipped with the necessary sensors. The company's designs add less than $100 to a scooter in costs for the additional tech, says co-founder and president Dmitry Shevelenko.
  • The company's tech uses 2 cameras, a processor, a radar chip, a motor (on the base of the steering column), and robotic training wheels for 2-wheel vehicles in place of a kickstand.
  • Tortoise charges the rental companies roughly $50–$100 per scooter per month to operate and insure the vehicles, though it plans eventually to move to a per-mile price.
  • Even today, with humans fully operating the vehicles remotely, this approach is still cheaper than having workers on the streets to pick up and shuttle the vehicles, says Shevelenko. This is in part because Tortoise's operation center is in Mexico City, so its labor costs are relatively low. He expects costs to go down even more as autonomous tech replaces humans.

Yes, but: As with the scooter rental services themselves, regulatory approval is the biggest obstacle, according to Shevelenko. The top question from rental companies so far has been about whether it can get cities to accept the new tech.

  • Tortoise is not the only company working on this idea: Segway-Ninebot, well known for helping the scooter boom get off to a quick start, pitched similar tech in August.
  • And of course, Tortoise, like its rivals, still has to prove it can build and deploy the new technology at scale (something self-driving car companies are still working on).

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