Up to now, San Francisco-based Tortoise has mostly been known for its technology that helps manage micro-mobility fleets like electric scooters and bikes. But earlier this week the company took to Twitter to unveil its new line of business: delivery robots.
But Tortoise is setting itself apart from other players like Starship and Kiwi that are already in the robot delivery space. First off, the slow-moving Tortoise, roughly the size of an electric wheelchair, is bigger than a rover bot and can carry 100-plus pounds. It’s not meant for on-demand delivery of burritos or lattes, but rather for making scheduled deliveries of groceries, parcels and other goods within a three mile radius of a store or hub.
Second, and perhaps more intriguing, is the fact that Tortoise robots are not autonomous. There are teleoperators who drive each Tortoise remotely. This manual control, according to the Tortoise rep I spoke with by phone this week, will allow the company to get to market and scale faster that other delivery robots.
It’s not hard to see why. While the idea of a fleet of self-driving robots is very cool, it can also come with some very real-world problems. Last fall, Starship’s robots had to pause deliveries in Pittsburgh after complaints of the robot blocking the sidewalk entrance of a person in a wheelchair. And based on this guest post in TechCrunch last month, robots have still not fully adapted to be disability friendly.
With a human at the Tortoise wheel, so to speak, the robots can stop, reverse and in general avoid incidents that could impact pedestrian and property safety. So having teleoperators could make city and local governments more amenable to Tortoise bots scurrying around on public sidewalks.
Needing one human to operate one Tortoise at at a time seems like it could be a barrier to scaling. However, the Tortoise rep told me that eventually, driving robots could operate like a call center, with drivers around the world, or Tortoise could become a gig-economy platform where people stay at home and play what is essentially a real-world videogame, driving the robots around. Though I can’t imagine it would pay all that well.
Tortoise’s business model is to flat-out lease robots to customers who would be responsible for storing and charging the robots. Tortoise would do maintenance as needed and control the driving platform to get deliveries to their destination. The company already has one bulk food delivery company as a customer with more retail partner announcements to come.
Tortoise is launching at a time when interest in delivery robots is accelerating. The pandemic has restaurants and retailers looking for ways to reduce human-to-human transmission. In addition to providing contactless delivery, Tortoise robots won’t get sick.
But Tortoise is also an example of how thinly sliced the delivery robot market is getting. You have the small rover bots of Starship and Kiwi, the larger bike lane-driving robots of Refraction, and the even larger pod-like vehicles of Nuro. By eschewing restaurant delivery and focusing on bigger grocery deliveries, Tortoise is carving out its own, more narrow niche.
Tortoise may not have been first in the delivery robot race, but it’s focus could speed it to front-runner status soon enough.