Torsten Scholl, president and CEO of TeleRetail, said his “initial thought” in developing a robot to deliver goods was “to enable local businesses to be more accessible, so they can compete in a warehouse-oriented, online universe.”
The robots, which Scholl hopes to test on the streets and sidewalks of Mountain View, would enable purchasers of goods to have “that local choice, to have a choice over warehouse-centric companies.
“It’s nice,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday from Dusseldorf, Germany, “to preorder, then go to the store to pick up, and even nicer if it is taken to your door. Why not develop technology to do that?”
His robots, which look like very small, futuristic cars too small for anything but a baby, are “still in prototype stage,” Scholl said. “The ultimate development goal is for it to be a safe transporter that people and businesses can use to handle their local errands.”
The devices, which Scholl said use very fast-charging batteries, are intended to travel as far as 10 miles, at speeds up to 35 miles per hour. They can also be configured to run on solar power, said Scholl.
Piloted by software and with a remotely viewed video camera, the devices would move at walking speed on sidewalks.
TeleRetail is a Swiss-German logistics automation technology start-up that plans to expand to the United States. It is one of three companies that have sought permission to test delivery robots in Mountain View. The city doesn’t yet have a policy for such programs, however, and the City Council is expected to consider a proposal for such a policy at its Sept. 26 meeting.
The other two companies are Starship Technologies of London, England, which is already testing its devices in Redwood City, and Robby Technologies of Palo Alto.
Scholl said the TeleRetail devices would eventually be autonomous, but would be remotely monitored using a camera system, which is a requirement in all jurisdictions that have considered their use. In testing, each device might be accompanied by a human walking along next to it.
Where they go and how fast they move would depend on what is permitted by the law, once the law exists.
Scholl said the TeleRetail robots, which weigh about 60 pounds empty, require ramps, such as wheelchair ramps, and that his team has yet to visit Mountain View and assess its conditions. Ramps aren’t the only issue. Potholes and other sidewalk conditions will have to be evaluated.
Scholl’s business plan, in effect, would compete with, say, Amazon. What if Amazon wanted to use the TeleRetail robots?
“That is a difficult question,” said Scholl, who indicated he might allow such a deal “under the premise that they would make it usable to local use.
“It could be interesting for them. If they would use it in a way that doesn’t prevent local stores from being accessible.”
So far, at least, the TeleRetail plan is to rent out the robots, although a price point hasn’t been determined.
“That depends on the area, on the jurisdiction,” he said. “It will probably be a mileage-based chart. It might be used in a way that when somebody places an order, we could get a percentage of the price.”
TeleRetail has already seen some interest from industrial operations, especially for distribution of parts.
At the moment, the robots cost about $25,000 each, but Scholl said the price would drop when more are made.
In a conversation that continued via email into Wednesday, Scholl also discussed whether robots would take away jobs, or create new ones.
“I believe that the development of autonomous vehicles will create new jobs. Jobs that are likely to offer more attractive perspective than delivery work,” he wrote in email.
“There will also be a need to continue to develop and manufacture the transporters.
This is likely to create an entirely new vehicle industry and consequently new jobs.
“PS: there will also be new vehicle maintenance-related jobs.”
Scholl, 50, said he’s been a serial entrepreneur all his life. His first company, he said, started in his parents’ attic, serving the U.S. military with a communications company, during a time when the U.S. military had a large presence in his native Germany.
He eventually sold that company, receiving enough money from that to continue other projects. TeleRetail is a start-up that is partially funded by his money, and by grants. He’s done some of the engineering himself, and has outsourced some of the work to universities in Germany and Switzerland.
He and TeleRetail’s co-founder, Ksenia Vereshchaga, plan to marry in September, which is why he doesn’t expect to attend that Sept. 26 Mountain View City Council meeting.
“But, I might be there as soon as October,” he said.
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