Transportation

Drover AI’s Alex Nesic on using tech to regulate the scooter market

Comment

Illustration of Drover AI CEO Alex Nesic.
Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

As shared micromobility continues to take over cities, operators have found themselves implementing different forms of scooter “advanced rider assistance systems” or scooter ARAS, that can detect when a rider is doing the thing cities hate most — riding on the sidewalk.

Drover AI, a startup that had the gumption to launch in May 2020, is one of the companies enabling this trend to take off. The startup builds computer vision IoT modules that have been mounted on scooters from the likes of Spin, Voi and Beam. The modules are built with cameras that use machine learning to detect things like sidewalks, bike lanes and pedestrians, which then send that data back to the scooter’s brain in order to send the riders alerts or, in some cases, actually slow them down.

Alex Nesic, one of the founders of Drover AI and its chief business officer, didn’t always have a burning passion for AI or computer vision. In fact, Nesic spent the better part of the aughts as an actor, appearing in TV shows like “Sleeper Cell” and “CSI” (Miami and New York!). But Nesic enjoyed chemistry in high school and was good at converting tech speak into actionable marketing language, so he jumped at the opportunity to get involved in a high school friend’s venture that dealt with nanotechnology and surface modification chemistry.

After rising up the ladder fairly quickly until he reached the role of VP, Nesic got pulled into the mobility sphere by a company called Immotor, which probably launched about five years too early to be successful. Immotor built a three-wheeled portable scooter with swappable batteries and was connected to an app via Bluetooth.

“I would travel with it because the batteries were TSA-compliant, and I would put it in the overhead bin and it was my introduction to moving through cities with micromobility that I could carry with me everywhere,” said Nesic.

This was around the time that Bird started launching shared scooters, so the market wasn’t yet ready for a $1,500 consumer-facing scooter that was being lumped more into the hoverboard category than a useful transportation device.

So Nesic pivoted and founded Clevr Mobility, a shared e-scooter operator that also provided a turnkey solution for cities and other private operators. Nesic said that Clevr was one of the first companies to start the conversation around detecting and geofencing sidewalks, only it was relying on GPS to try to achieve submeter accuracy. It was the failure to actually do so that led Nesic to denounce the inadequacies of GPS and go on to found Drover AI, which meets the demand for precise location awareness using computer vision instead.

We sat down with Nesic to discuss the possibilities of integrating computer vision tech into privately owned scooters, what it means when a larger company steals your idea and why tech pedigrees are overrated when it comes to running a startup.

Editor’s note: The following interview, part of an ongoing series with founders who are building transportation companies, has been edited for length and clarity.

TechCrunch: You closed a $5.4 million Series A in July, and at the time you told me the money would go toward your next-gen product but also toward exploring other integrations farther up the supply chain with vehicle manufacturers.

Alex Nesic: The end game for me is also to try to help inform the regulatory environment because it’s not reasonable to expect there to be two different sets of rules for the shared operators and private scooter owners. Operators are constrained and have all these hoops to jump through, but then anybody can buy something on Amazon that doesn’t offer any similar safety features.

I know it’s easy to dunk on the industry and say that these technologies are really bells and whistles when cities should be focusing on adequate infrastructure. I have been in places that have adequate infrastructure. Amsterdam is like the holy grail, right? And they’re still struggling with the wrong modality in the wrong place. They have an issue with mopeds using bike lanes and now they’re using cameras to enforce the bike lanes.

So again, this technology is not just frivolous, in my view. I think that once we get to a point where it can be embedded and applicable to all kinds of modalities, then you have a system where you can say, all right, if mopeds want to be in the bike lane, you’re going to be capped at 15 miles per hour. If you’re on the sidewalk, you get disabled.

More Transportation Founders

Zūm founder strikes balance between accessibility and a massive logistics network

Empathy is essential for building a loyal team, says Kolors co-founder Anca Gardea

Kodiak Robotics’ founder explains why autonomous freight could brush off inflation

Veo’s Candice Xie one year later, still slowly and steadily winning the profitability race

Astrix Astronautics’ Fia Jones on wooing Peter Beck to launch her startup

Why Convoy’s Dan Lewis expects digital freight to go mainstream within the year

Revel founder Frank Reig a year later on driving EV adoption in big cities

Steer’s Anuja Sonalker explains the benefits of chasing the less glitzy side of autonomy

Co-founders of Ukrainian startup Delfast discuss navigating through a crisis

Tortoise co-founder Dmitry Shevelenko: ‘You can’t do too many things at the same time’

Waabi’s Raquel Urtasun on the importance of differentiating your startup

Exploring the many faces of sidewalk delivery robots with Cartken’s Anjali Jindal Naik

Einride founder Robert Falck on his moral obligation to electrify autonomous trucking

Via’s Tiffany Chu on the importance of govtech for planning mobility ecosystems

Rad Power Bikes founder Mike Radenbaugh on fueling the e-bike revolution

Battery chemistry company Sila’s founder Gene Berdichevsky on the science of scaling up

Plentywaka founder Onyeka Akumah on African startups and global expansion

Zūm CEO Ritu Narayan explains why equity and accessibility works for mobility services

Kodiak Robotics’ founder says tight focus on autonomous trucks is working

Outdoorsy co-founders detail how they expanded the sharing economy to RVs

Veo CEO Candice Xie has a plan for building a sustainable scooter company, and it’s working

Refraction AI’s Matthew Johnson-Roberson on finding the middle path to robotic delivery

Arrival’s Denis Sverdlov on the new era of car manufacturing

Revel’s Frank Reig shares how he built his business and what he’s planning

I’m struggling between words like “nanny state” or “paternalistic” for treating micromobility like this when cars, which are arguably much more dangerous, don’t have such controls.

The hegemony that we’ve seen in the automotive industry … it’s just really hard to put that cat back in the bag after 100 years of not having an automatic speed limit. It’s just way too big of a beast to tame and I think cities are sensing that micromobility and these new modalities, especially in the core dense urban areas, are an opportunity to get it right. And then if it’s proven out to be effective with the smaller modalities, then it gives them precedent to then deploy it on cars.

The Department for Transport in the U.K. is also looking at this, which is why shared fleets are legal, but private scooters weren’t for so long — because they’re looking at this in a holistic way. And so if you believe that that’s a likely outcome, we think that our technology will hopefully be a core element of a manufacturer’s ability to meet those regulations if they develop at the federal or even state level in the U.S.

Are there any other industries where you’ve seen something like this happen?

We see micromobility as the drones of the built infrastructure — they go places where cars can’t, even though current infrastructure has been built largely for cars.

Drones were initially the purview of commercial enterprise — surveying, agriculture, utility companies. They were expensive products and there were not very many of them. Then the prices dropped and companies came out with affordable consumer products. And you started seeing people flying them in really unsafe places, like, federally regulated airspace, and so that immediately became a concern.

As with micromobility, there are no signs around telling people not to fly their drones here, so it became a top-down regulatory environment where manufacturers decided to implement geofencing. Now if you try to fly your drone into FAA-regulated airspace, it won’t work. So it’s not impossible for the micromobility space to be regulated this way.

I assume Drover is actively trying to push for regulation in the private scooter market?

To the extent that we have relationships with city officials and people in this space, we are definitely not shy about talking about the benefits of using this technology. I think, with additional capital, we can certainly bring more resources to bear and maybe team up with shared micromobility companies that would be aligned in that fight. Because it doesn’t benefit shared micromobility companies if Joe Schmo can buy a scooter online that goes 50 miles per hour and theirs is capped at 15. They’ll lose customers.

Tier recently bought Fantasmo to bring its camera positioning tech in-house, and Lime just announced its own computer vision tech. Are you worried about operators bringing the tech you make in-house?

Just because Zoom existed didn’t mean that Microsoft and Google weren’t gonna get into the video conferencing space. There’s always room for competition and, ultimately, the fact that operators and even manufacturers are trying to replicate our approach is very validating. It proves that our idea is in fact valid.

On the other hand, it definitely creates competition and we have to be aware of it. I think our speed of execution gives us a little bit of a head start, having deployed internationally across multiple continents and dozens of cities so far with our training dataset and continuing to build on those tools.

Lime throwing their hat in the computer vision ring does kind of make it table stakes moving forward for others to compete, so it’s actually helping us fortify our position with existing customers. We just have to make sure that we stay competitive in terms of the technology and our value proposition, continuing to add value on the operational and unit economics front.

Do you think your strategy going forward might be to pursue smaller operators that don’t have the resources to build this kind of tech in-house?

Part of our strategy here is to integrate our technology farther up the supply chain, which would then see us integrate with smaller operators. We can work with the Okais and Segways and Actons of the world and build a scooter that already integrates our next-generation product. If operators want the Drover-equipped scooter, then they’ll just pay us the monthly SaaS fee for support.

We’re also in conversation with IoT manufacturers and third-party software partners like Joyride or Wunder Mobility to enable the ingestion of the rich dataset that we can provide off our units. Those are the best ways for us to target the mid- to lower-tier operators that service regional markets.

If you had a crystal ball, when do you think you’ll get to a point where computer vision technology is cheap enough that it can be scaled as widely as you’re talking?

If I’m optimistic, I’d want to say next year. I think that hopefully the supply chain and component and chip shortage and all these other things go away, and we will be able to significantly reduce cost. We’ll also be able to achieve scale by integrating with manufacturers that are building abroad.

Drover cameras on vehicles are collecting a ton of data as they move through the world. How do you use that as an ancillary service to bring in additional revenue?

That’s definitely something that, with additional capital and more saturation in the market, we really want to flush out because you’re astutely pointing out that we have tens of thousands of vehicles that will be equipped with cameras collecting data from cities and moving through cities very differently than cars do. And so there’s a lot of opportunity there from an image standpoint, maybe filling in gaps for street mapping in areas where cars can’t go.

Recency is also a big thing. In Google Street View, the average age of images is somewhere between 18 and 24 months. Maybe we can help fill gaps and provide more recent images to mapping services like that.

We’re looking at things like infrastructure surveying to help with urban and transportation planning. One of the projects I’m having my team work on now is bike lane violations, which have gained a lot of steam on the political side recently. Same thing with blocking bus lanes. We can use scooters instead of just static cameras and collect citywide data to help inform policy decisions.

You mentioned that with more funding you’d be able to scale your capabilities further. The funding environment is uncertain at the moment. Would you consider being acquired by an operator or manufacturer?

I would certainly entertain offers but it’s hard to say yes or no without having a real offer. I think it’s a broader conversation. Obviously, now that we have investors on board, we’re not the only ones that have a say in the matter, so it would just have to be the right fit and give us additional potential to grow faster as part of a bigger organization. We’re just focused on building, and the results will come.

Your founding team, you included, doesn’t really come from computer vision backgrounds or any unicorns in the autonomous space, which you’ve said didn’t exactly thrill investors. Any advice for founders in a similar boat, who are coming from a more generalist background?

I think pedigree is almost weighted too much, whether it’s in a job interview or a VC trying to fund a company. They want to know what you’ve done in that same space because they somehow think that it’s going to ensure success. It’s a tough prejudice to break free from. I think you just have to show it with conviction and belief and really lean on the fact that generalists do bring a different perspective.

Also, being multicultural is a huge asset — a lot of companies that are successful are from immigrants because they come from the outside and are able to approach problems with a more open mind. Personally, I’m just open to hearing ideas. I’m never really wedded to anything. I’ve changed my mind often, and I think that’s a skill set that is not necessarily valued enough. It’s OK to change your mind, because it means that you’re absorbing new information.

Where do you think Drover will be a year from now?

Our goal is to be much less involved in the hardware side of things, to continue building the software, our AI capabilities, adding layers and value there. We want to be integrated into not just scooters but e-bikes and e-mopeds on the shared side and hopefully even in some consumer products.

I think in a year and beyond, I want to be diversified in terms of vehicles that we service and I want to move closer to what I would call a technology licensing model where people are building the hardware that’s necessary to run our AI and our suite of tools into the vehicles and we can just license our tech.

Correction: A previous version of this article listed Alex Nesic as Drover’s CEO. He is the company’s CBO.

More TechCrunch

The European venture capital firm raised its fourth fund as fund as climate tech “comes of age.”

ETF Partners raises €284M for climate startups that will be effective quickly — not 20 years down the road

Copilot, Microsoft’s brand of generative AI, will soon be far more deeply integrated into the Windows 11 experience.

Microsoft wants to make Windows an AI operating system, launches Copilot+ PCs

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine.”

Scarlett Johansson says that OpenAI approached her to use her voice

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. For those who haven’t heard, the first crewed launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has been pushed back yet again to no earlier than…

TechCrunch Space: Star(side)liner

When I attended Automate in Chicago a few weeks back, multiple people thanked me for TechCrunch’s semi-regular robotics job report. It’s always edifying to get that feedback in person. While…

These 81 robotics companies are hiring

The top vehicle safety regulator in the U.S. has launched a formal probe into an April crash involving the all-electric VinFast VF8 SUV that claimed the lives of a family…

VinFast crash that killed family of four now under federal investigation

When putting a video portal in a public park in the middle of New York City, some inappropriate behavior will likely occur. The Portal, the vision of Lithuanian artist and…

NYC-Dublin real-time video portal reopens with some fixes to prevent inappropriate behavior

Longtime New York-based seed investor, Contour Venture Partners, is making progress on its latest flagship fund after lowering its target. The firm closed on $42 million, raised from 64 backers,…

Contour Venture Partners, an early investor in Datadog and Movable Ink, lowers the target for its fifth fund

Meta’s Oversight Board has now extended its scope to include the company’s newest platform, Instagram Threads, and has begun hearing cases from Threads.

Meta’s Oversight Board takes its first Threads case

The company says it’s refocusing and prioritizing fewer initiatives that will have the biggest impact on customers and add value to the business.

SeekOut, a recruiting startup last valued at $1.2 billion, lays off 30% of its workforce

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender SoLo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

1 day ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back