Will Semiautonomous Robots Soon Replace the Delivery Dude?

Wheeled bots with cute names like Coco and Lola are being dispatched to tote to-go orders—but what does it mean for their human counterparts?

If you see a large square box rolling down the streets of your town, know this: it’s not a UFO, though it is the future—of food delivery. Bots are carting lunch, dinner, and grocery orders to Angelenos in a much cheaper, more environmentally friendly form than cars or trucks. That’s right, this is how your Pellegrino and Advil PM now roll. Literally.

Semiautonomous delivery robots, in development for years, are getting frequent test drives by Los Angeles restaurants in WeHo, Santa Monica, and Pacific Palisades. Luxury buildings like Ten Thousand on Santa Monica Boulevard have been employing bots for a while: for instance, Charley, a robot butler, delivers your champagne to your door. But now bots are becoming egalitarian, and, this being L.A., they’ve all got cutesy names like Pinky and Dotty. Pretty-in-pink Coco lingers on the Third Street Promenade.

coco bot

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

The few hundred on the street right now get a little help from friends: humans follow on foot or remotely, even though bots are armed with sensors and programmed to make their way around objects, climb short steps, and move up to five miles per hour.

It’s the restaurant delivery apps that are most invested in robotics. San Francisco-based Postmates X has spun off into Serve Robotics. Its motto? “Why move a 2-pound burrito in a 2-ton car?” Pink Dot, on the Sunset Strip, employs three of them.

Bots have to recharge batteries just like we do (well, not just like). At night, they’re stored in secure recharge facilities and so will not be found doing late-night karaoke at Hamburger Mary’s.

Ali Kashani heads up Serve Robotics, and his TED Talk on its baby cyborgs has been viewed more than a million times. In it, he touts the entertainment value of bots: “Turns out kids love them! They’re designed to look friendly. Some people chase bots on foot to take photos. Chrissy Teigen posted about one. We’re very popular on Twitter.” Currently, Serve Robotics visits 10,000 homes via Postmates and Uber Eats.

Diego Varela Prada, COO of Kiwibot, believes lower costs are the big bot motivator for delivery apps. “The average order adds 40 percent in fees and tips,” explains Varela. “We only charge a few bucks on top of food charges.”

Downsides? Despite sensors and cameras, there’s still a bot overboard from time to time. “One of our bots got stuck on a sidewalk,” Varela says. “A guy came out and set him right. Sure, people attempt to vandalize them, steal them, and grab their goods. We work closely with the city to keep an eye on them. These bots are several thousand bucks apiece; they have GPS. Let’s just say, if you try to take a bot home, you’re taking the police with you!”

Hence, a Buzzfeed tech reporter created an experiment a few years back: Was it was possible to steal food from a bot? He managed to pry one open on his second try. Still, bots have eyes literally in the back of their heads—meaning, cameras on all sides. So as a result of Buzzfeed’s staged smash-and-grab, the technology has been upgraded—let’s just say the current generation of bots is practically Fort Box. DoorDash, with over 20,000 miles of testing and in contact with 4 million people, hasn’t had a single instance of theft.

Next year, delivery bots will be on the streets of most major American cities. Kiwibot alone will deploy 1,000 across the U.S. How do human delivery workers feel about losing jobs to programmed shopping carts? One DoorDash employee was recorded cursing a bot: “I hate your face!”

Kashani thinks there are a lot of misconceptions about bots stealing jobs. “ATMs didn’t replace tellers,” he says. “ATMs led to more teller jobs. I’m of the belief that this will lead to more jobs because more people will use food delivery.”

In the near future, experts concur, bots will likely be delivering all your heart’s short-distanced desires: dresses for last-minute dates, the coffee filters you forgot, and, yes, toilet paper. But for right now, you’ll have to settle for pizza.

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