Don’t Forget to Tip Your (Robotic) Delivery Driver

This fall we’ve spent a fair amount of time talking about how connected and automated vehicles (CAVs) will change the structure of our cities, from the curb, to public transit, and beyond. In my last post before the holidays, I want to take a look at how CAVs could change the way goods are transported and delivered within cities. While they probably won’t reach Santa-levels of delivery efficiency, CAVs may help make last-mile deliveries more efficient (and could help fill the current shortage of truck drivers in the US, but that’s a subject for another day).

CAVs are already being tested as delivery vehicles by companies like Domino’s and Kroger, while earlier this year Toyota announced delivery partnerships with Amazon and Pizza Hut, and Waymo’s CEO recently highlighted it as an area of opportunity.  This week the New York Times profiled Nuro, the start-up working with Kroger to test robotic delivery cars in Scottsdale, Ariz. Nuro’s vehicles are designed in-house, and look like “toasters-on-wheels.” Currently they followed everywhere they go by human safety drivers in conventionally driven “shadow car,” since the vehicles are still in testing. When the vehicle stops for a delivery, customers enter a PIN code into a small touch pad to open a compartment containing their order. The current charge for same-day delivery using the system is around $6. Ford has also flagged the delivery market as an area they’d like to explore, citing projections that, by 2026, the last-mile delivery market for CAVs will hit $130 billion.

But the roads are not the only path automated vehicles may soon tread in their mission to bring you your takeout order. A number of companies, including Postmates, are working on delivery robots that will cruse down the sidewalk and roll right up to your door. Last year I even personally witnessed Postmates’ bot rolling along the streets of Washington. As exciting as it would be to have R2-D2’s cousin deposit an order of egg rolls on your doorstep, the deployment of delivery bots raises an interesting question of how much space we’re willing to give up to automated devices. The sidewalk is a human dominated space, and, especially in cities, is already busy with foot traffic. Will people be willing to cede some of this space to a robot? Yet another question that city regulators and individual citizens will be forced to answer as automation makes greater inroads to our daily lives.

P.S. – Last week a delivery robot caught fire in Berkeley, leading some locals to build a memorial in its honor.