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Ford’s Spin wants to curb e-scooter dumping with remote-controlled three-wheelers

E-scooter companies are flipping the switch on more-advanced monitoring tools meant to combat a major issue plaguing the micromobility industry: sidewalk clutter.

Almost as soon as the dockless rides descended on the nation’s metro areas in 2018, electric scooters from companies such as Bird and Lime wound up in parts of town that frustrated homeowners and public officials. Many of the early scooters were prone to break down or ended up blocking sidewalks and roadways. Some e-scooter oppositionists and vigilantes tossed them into rivers and lakes as the last-mile convenience threatened to become a micromobility mess.

More than three years later, after government crackdowns and pedestrian accidents rattled scooter-share companies, e-scooters are being reinvented. Companies are deploying better-designed pay-per-minute vehicles meant to keep people from abandoning them all over the place.

On Wednesday, Spin announced new tiny-wheeled rides that allow scooter operators to remotely move the vehicles if they end up somewhere they aren’t supposed to be. The company tapped Segway for the scooters and the autonomous-technology start-up Tortoise for the software. The companies say the development is key to creating more order in city streets.

“There has been a lot of fanfare around the potential of remote-controlled e-scooters, but this partnership marks a turning point … to bring them to city streets,” Ben Bear, the chief business officer at Spin, said in a statement.

Spin has been rapidly expanding and investing in new tech since it was bought by Ford in 2018 for a reported $ 100 million. Tortoise, a mobility software company founded in 2019, already has received regulatory approval to operate in 14 cities, including an Atlanta suburb where it began testing last year. Segway claims to dominate 70 percent of the global shared e-scooter market as an early provider of rides to Bird and Lime.

The Spin initiative will launch a pilot program in Boise, Idaho, where up to 250 three-wheelers will be able to roam around town without a rider this spring. The test could lead to a future ride-hailing service, where people can use an app to summon an unmanned e-scooter to their doorstep, Spin says. The partnership was also created to address people littering public spaces with abandoned scooters.

The project follows product announcements from other micromobility companies seeking to solve the same issue. On Monday, two Irish companies, Luna and Zipp, teamed up to provide next-generation rides that “know” whether they are parked improperly. The collaboration is meant to reduce insurance costs and municipal fines, the companies said. Earlier this month, Tier partnered with the mapping firm Fantasmo on a new scooter parking system that will allow users to end rides only within a specific area.

The companies are vying to inject more monitoring and safety into an industry beset by pedestrian accidents and vandalism.

Some e-scooter companies pay other companies to round up stray scooters each night and put them back in designated zones. Spin says it hopes its new remote-controlled fleet will cut back on operational costs associated with maintaining and repositioning e-scooters, which are worth a few hundred dollars apiece.

Despite setbacks, the industry shows promise. Estimated at $ 18.6 billion in 2019, the e-scooter market was projected to hit $ 20 billion in 2020. The pandemic held things up. But cities eventually closed off more streets to automobile traffic, making shared rides part of their social distancing response and setting the groundwork for what could be a stronger e-scooter market in the years to come. For example, D.C. unveiled new legislation in October allowing the number of electric scooters and bicycles to double to 20,000 units by Oct. 1, 2023. San Francisco added 500 approved Spin scooters this month on top of the 1,500 already allowed.

Spin’s new three-wheeled scooters were built with enhanced suspension, machine learning capabilities and a set of cameras. The scooters weigh 77 pounds and were constructed with three wheels so that they are less likely to be tipped over, Spin says.

The vehicle’s design, computer vision and 4G connectivity enable Tortoise tele-operators to re-park scooters that are in a higher-trafficked area immediately after a trip ends. If the e-scooter is abandoned on the sidewalk, the operator can use the camera feed to steer it to a nearby spot that’s less likely to cause a problem. Under Tortoise’s control, the scooters can travel up to 3 mph and have a 40-mile battery range.

Eventually, battery-depleted scooters will automatically go to the nearest Spin charging station for a power boost, Spin says.

It’s unclear how the public will respond to scooters roaming around seemingly uncontrolled. That’s part of what Spin wants to find out.

“That’s one of the things we’re excited to see,” Bear said.

Spin hopes its remotely operated rides will enable the company to launch a scooter-hailing service by the end of 2021. The move would allow customers to request an e-scooter in advance or in real time via an app.

The announcement represents Spin’s latest attempt to innovate as it expands to new markets. In December, it announced plans to boost e-scooters with software that alerts pedestrians to sidewalk riders and plans to deploy them in New York City this spring. Ford has also invested in software that will enable scooters to communicate with cars on the road via Bluetooth to cut down on accidents.

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