Robots are no longer the high-tech tools reserved for university labs, e-commerce giants and buzzy Silicon Valley startups. The local grocer now has access too.
Tortoise, the one-year-old Silicon Valley startup known for its remote repositioning electric scooters, has taken its tech and adapted it to delivery carts. The company recently partnered with online grocery platform Self Point to provide neighborhood stores and specialty brand shops with electric carts that — with help from remote teleoperators — deliver goods to local consumers.
The companies have launched the product offering in Los Angeles with three customers. Each customer, which includes Kosher Express, has two to three carts that can be used to make deliveries up to a three-mile radius from the store. Unlike the network models used by some autonomous sidewalk delivery companies, grocery stores lease the delivery carts and are responsible for storage, charging and packing it up with goods that their customers have ordered.
The initial Self Point/Tortoise launch is small. But it has the makings of expanding far beyond Los Angeles. More importantly for Tortoise, it’s a validation of the company’s larger vision to make remote repositioning a horizontal business with numerous applications.
Tortoise started by equipping electric scooters with cameras, electronics and firmware that allow teleoperators in distant locales to drive the micromobility devices to a rider or deliver it back to its proper parking spot. Now, it has taken that same hardware and software and used it to build its own delivery cart.
Tortoise co-founder and president Dmitry Shevelenko has said the company’s remote repositioning kit can be used for security and cleaning bots as well as electric wheelchairs and other accessibility devices. He’s even fielded inquiries from farmers interested in using remote repositioning scooters to monitor crops.
“From a practical point of view we’re not trying to not be everywhere overnight, but there’s really no technological constraint for us,” Shevelenko said in a recent interview.
The emergence of COVID-19 and its effects on consumer behavior prompted Tortoise to home in on delivery carts as its second act.
“We kind of quickly realized that we’re living in a once-in-a-generation change in consumer behavior where now everything is online and people are expecting it to be delivered same day,” Shevelenko said. Tortoise was able to go from the first renderings in May to a delivery cart launch by the fourth quarter because of its ability to repurpose its hardware, software and workforce.
The company still remains bullish on its initial application in micromobility. Earlier this year, Tortoise, GoX and and tech incubator Curiosity Labs launched a six-month pilot in Peachtree Corners, Georgia that allows riders to use an app to hail a scooter. The scooters are outfitted with Tortoise’s tech. Once riders hail the scooter, a Tortoise employee hundreds of miles away remote controls the scooter to the user. After riders complete trips, the scooters drive themselves back to a safe parking spot. From there, GoX employees charge and sanitize the scooters and then mark them with a sticker that indicates they have been properly cleaned.
While partnership with Self Point is Tortoise’s next big project, Shevelenko was quick to note that the company is only focused on one slice of the on-demand delivery pie.
“Low speeds and hot foods don’t work too well,” he said. Startups such as Kiwibot and Starship have smaller robots that focus on that market, Shevelenko added. Tortoise’s delivery carts were designed specifically to hold large amounts of groceries, alcohol and other goods.
“We saw kind of a big opening in grocery,” he said, adding that relying on remote operators and its kit is a low-cost combination that can be used today while automated technology continues to develop. “We’re doing for last-mile delivery what globalized call centers did for customer support.”