Sharing a sidewalk with one of DoorDash’s delivery robots is a bit like getting stuck behind someone playing Pokémon Go on his smartphone. The robot moves a little bit slower than you want to; every few meters it pauses, jerking to the left or right, perhaps turning around, then turning again before continuing on its way.
These are the sidewalks of the future, technology evangelists promise. Autonomous delivery robots, once the exclusive purview of 1980s sci-fi movies, are coming to a city near you, with promises of reduced labor costs, increased efficiency, and the reduction of cars.
But as robot fleets proliferate – Starship robots perform food deliveries for DoorDash and Postmates in Redwood City, California, and Washington DC, while Marble robots will begin making deliveries for Yelp Eat24 in San Francisco on Wednesday – the question none of these companies seems to want to answer is this: are these the sidewalks that we actually want?
Sidewalk-traversing robots are one of several possible solutions to the pesky problem of “last-mile” logistics. Venture capitalists have poured millions into startups employing an army of independent contractors to provide instant gratification to urbanites. But the humans in this equation remain a significant cost, and innovators are looking to obviate them with automated solutions.
Drones simply don’t make sense for urban environments, said Matt Delaney, one of Marble’s three co-founders who called robots “the only sane solution”. He argued that delivery robots could improve quality of life for people like his grandfather, who lost his driver’s license and has to hire someone for tasks like picking up prescriptions at the pharmacy.
With just a handful of robots in service in Redwood City and San Francisco, Marble and Starship have yet to face any backlash. But the revolutionary promise of robot deliveries will only be realized if these companies achieve scale – a Starship spokesman promised “thousands and thousands of robots in thousands of cities around the world” to the San Jose Mercury News.
But will those robot legions disrupt the fabric of urban neighborhoods? Are pedestrians prepared to jostle for space between robots the size of a golden retriever (Starship) or a filing cabinet on wheels (Marble)?
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