Spin is testing remote-controlled electric scooters to prevent blocked sidewalks

Spin, the scooter company owned by Ford, is testing a new scooter that can be controlled by a remote operator. The scooters, Segway’s T60 model, look different than Spin’s regular fleet with the addition of a third wheel in the front. They’re also outfitted with sensors and other technology provided by a startup called Tortoise, which has been testing how teleoperation could potentially make fleets of shared electric scooters easier to manage.

Starting this spring, Spin plans to start testing 250 remote-operated scooters in Boise, Idaho, before deciding whether to expand the pilot to additional markets. Tortoise’s software — which uses the scooters’ front- and rear-facing built-in cameras — makes it possible for remote operators to move the scooters when they happen to be blocking sidewalks or street traffic. It will also eventually make it possible for an e-scooter to travel several blocks to riders.

“There has been a lot of fanfare around the potential of teleoperated e-scooters, but this partnership marks a turning point in tangible operational plans to bring them to city streets,” Ben Bear, chief business officer at Spin, said in a statement. “In addition to providing reliability to consumers and more order to city streets, this could significantly improve unit economics, reducing the operational work required to maintain and reposition fleets, while cutting down on mileage spent traveling to rebalance vehicles.”

The problem this pilot aims to solve is one that has plagued the shared scooter industry since its inception. Right now, 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 lifespan. Fraud and hoarding are rampant. It’s a massive logistical challenge that can be dangerous for the freelancers involved.

Meanwhile, riders have a difficult time tracking down available scooters when they want one. They block sidewalks, obstructing the path for people in wheelchairs and other pedestrians with mobility concerns. 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.

Tortoise has previously tested out its remote-operating technology in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. The scooters, which were owned by a shared service operator called Go X, didn’t have three wheels. Rather, they had two extra smaller wheels in the middle of the deck that could pop out like training wheels to help balance the scooter.

The Segway T60, which was first introduced by the Chinese scooter manufacturer a year ago, is supposed to be a more stable model built specifically for this type of application. When it was released, Segway called it a “roboscooter,” with a “reverse tricycle chassis” made for global scooter-sharing service providers. Spin noted that the T60 has enhanced suspension, three independent braking systems (regenerative rear brake, front and rear drum brakes), and turn signals (on handlebars and near the rear wheel).

So how will it work? After a ride is completed, Tortoise’s teleoperators (who are located over a thousand miles away in Mexico City) may reposition the scooter if it’s parked somewhere where it’s unlikely to get another trip or if the scooter is blocking the sidewalk, crosswalk, or a handicapped-accessible space.

Later this year, Spin says it will offer in-app “scooter hailing” that allows customers to request an e-scooter in advance or in real time.