Amazon stepped into an unexpected public relations mess recently when company officials claimed that its workers would never have to resort to urinating in bottles.
The absurdity of the situation came to a head last week after evidence quickly emerged that Amazon delivery drivers — not to mention Uber, UPS and FedEx drivers — do in fact regularly relieve themselves while on the go. In a rare apology issued late Friday night, Amazon apologized for its snarky tweets and pledged to address what it called a “long-standing, industry-wide issue.”
“We don’t yet know how, but will look for solutions,” the company wrote in its apology.
Well, help may just be around the corner for Amazon’s potty problem.
Amazon offers rare apology, says it will look for solutions to drivers peeing in bottles
Seattle-based CityBldr and D.C.-based Throne are on the cusp of rolling out a new high-tech restroom, one designed specifically for the issue that landed Amazon in hot water.Two startups with roots in Seattle and Washington, D.C. — which also happen to be the hometowns of Amazon’s HQ1 and HQ2—believe they’ve got the proper solution for drivers who need to go (no matter if they are doing a Day 1 or a Day 2).
Throne says it takes the “stress out of finding a clean bathroom in a few easy steps.” After delivery drivers download the app, they simply can reserve a nearby Throne bathroom unit, with the company noting that “we’ll hold it so you don’t have to.”
Like the systems used to unlock ride-sharing vehicles — think of the old Seattle-based ReachNow service or Lime bike and scooter offering — the app then can be used to unlock the bathroom so the user can “go in your Throne.”
Throne and CityBldr have big plans for the service, which in the early stages of being rolled out in D.C. Throne founder and CEO Fletcher Wilson tells GeekWire that the company is still in stealth mode, but is planning a “soft launch” for the D.C. area this spring with a fuller launch in the region this summer. He declined to name partners or disclose pricing.
“This isn’t just a challenge faced by Amazon,” Wilson said in a press release. “This issue affects many of our fastest growing workforces, including rideshare and food delivery drivers.”
Wilson, who suffers from gastrointestinal issues and holds a degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University, said he often found himself in urgent need of a bathroom. After researching the issue with rideshare drivers, he discovered there was a bigger market opportunity and founded the company ten months ago.
“Everyone deserves a really nice bathroom,” said Fletcher, noting that Throne plans to use real-time cleanliness ratings from users, a suite of sensors and other data to keep the restrooms clean. Fletcher’s work as an innovation fellow at the Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign will also prove useful, bringing engineering discipline to the challenge.
Automated Public Toilets — or APTs as they are known in the industry — are not new. But it has been tough for companies and cities to nail the cost equation. More common in Europe, a report released last month estimated that the global “smart toilet” market was worth about $5 billion last year, with growth expected in the coming years.
Seattle-based CityBldr, which uses machine learning to help developers, appraisers, city planners and others better understand property values, got involved in the project after Modica CEO William Gibbs introduced Throne to CityBldr’s Bryan Copley.
Copley was intrigued, and believed his company’s technology could help Throne find potential bathroom sites in cities. By using machine learning to identify potential sites, Copley said they can provide Throne with a speed and intelligence advantage in a market that’s attracting competition.
Essentially, Copley says they can help Throne start “every drive in field goal range versus from your own 20 yard line.”
Creating a network of clean and germ-free public restrooms is no easy task, with The New York Times writing last summer that public bathrooms tend to bring up a certain “ick factor.” There are also regulatory issues, since many U.S. cities have banned pay toilets.
In 2008, Seattle removed its five automated self-cleaning pay toilets, after sinking $5 million into the failed experiment. In Portland, Oregon, the city has found more success with the Portland Loo, a non-automated public restroom that’s been installed in 18 locations and is designed to cut back on vandalism, prostitution and drug use.
Avoiding regulatory roadblocks and removing that ick factor from the equation, especially during COVID-19, is a big challenge.
Again, Wilson isn’t sharing much about how they’ll innovate, telling GeekWire they are hoping to be “first movers into a new market with a lot of potential.”
“Figuring out answers to these regulatory, business model, and scalability questions has been the main focus of our work to date, and is the crux of what we can’t share publicly, as we do predict this to be a competitive space in the near future,” he said.