The future of autonomous vehicles is coming slower than expected—maybe less than 10 miles per hour.
But delivery robots don’t need to move even that fast to take groceries to customers. Where they’re going, they may not even need roads, just sidewalks. And now their inhumanity isn’t a bug but a feature for pandemic-weary shoppers anxious for touch-free deliveries.
“The demand for contactless delivery at an affordable price has permanently increased,” says Ryan Tuohy, senior vice president of business development at Starship Technologies.
That San Francisco firm—set up in Talinn, Estonia, in 2014 by two of Skype’s founders—brought its six-wheeled robots to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, in January 2019, where they transport groceries and snacks for a $2 charge and have become a routine sight on that campus. Starship plans to have these battery-powered conveyances making deliveries around 15 U.S. colleges this fall.
That commercial availability alone puts the company farther down the road than more ambitious ventures into fully autonomous, passenger-carrying vehicles.
Pre-pandemic, this company and others looking to make robotic deliveries work—for instance, Mountain View, California-based Nuro, which is testing its golf cart-sized R2 vehicle in Houston with Kroger and CVS—already had the advantage of a simpler problem to solve. Now there’s increasing demand for their solution too.
“Our customers loved them!” emailed Tracy Stannard, owner of Broad Branch Market. That neighborhood grocery in northwest Washington, D.C., used Starship robots this summer until Starship needed to redeploy them for use on its campus markets.
Stannard said she did see some customer confusion about how to use Starship’s mobile app to coordinate delivery and then open the robot’s cargo compartment. “We did have ice cream melt when a person failed to meet the robot in a timely manner,” she wrote.
In the United Kingdom, Starship robots have been performing food and grocery deliveries in the town of Milton Keynes since late 2018, and the coronavirus threat boosted that business as well. “We have seen that grow 5X since the pandemic came,” says Touhy.
Starship robots are much slower and simpler than the self-driving cars being tested by such firms as Google’s Waymo subsidiary. They only hit 4 mph, run four miles on a charge, and eschew expensive Lidar in favor of a suite of cheaper sensors.
According to a 2017 presentation from Starship’s computer-vision lead Sergey Kharagorgiev at the Codiax conference in Romania, each robot packs in nine cameras, eight ultrasonic sensors, and four radars, plus GPS and various motion sensors.
Tuohy summed up the design philosophy as “use inexpensive hardware and make software do the work.” Starship also has human teleoperators standing by to step in if a robot gets too confused.
Does not compute
Promising though these bots are, they have gotten into mishaps, some as simple as the occasional case of a robot getting stuck before a kind human frees it.
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In late July, one drove into a canal near Milton Keynes. Last October, the University of Pittsburgh paused testing of Starship robots after one wheelchair-using student tweeted that one partially blocked a curb ramp; the school resumed tests after Starship tweaked its software, then pronounced the service operational in January.
Tuohy declined to discuss that case but said in general Starship aims not just to be safe but to “feel safe.”
Sidewalks and streets themselves can complicate a delivery robot’s life, even though the Americans with Disabilities Act’s mandate for step-free surfaces should ease their path.
“Many areas still don’t have ramps or have large cracks in sidewalks,” said Nico Larco, director of the University of Oregon’s Urbanism Next Center. He also said it’s not obvious whether delivery robots should take the sidewalk, the bike lane, or the traffic lane.
Lisa Nisenson, vice president for new mobility and connected communities at West Palm Beach design firm WGI, says that “mobility lanes” for vehicles slower than traditional cars may not answer this problem.
Imagining one occupied by, among others, a 10-mph delivery robot, a 17-mph driverless shuttle, and an 18-mph electric bike, she asks, “Who passes whom, and is the road really wide enough?”
Existing laws don’t always fit delivery robots either, adds Jennifer Huddleston, director of innovation and technology policy at the American Action Forum, a Washington-based, free-market-minded nonprofit.
“You may have existing sidewalk regulations in communities that make it difficult to deploy these devices,” she said, saying e-scooters encountered similar regulatory obstacles. “It’s going to depend on city code to city code.”
In 2017, Virginia passed a law regulating “personal delivery services” that limits delivery robots to 10 mph. That’s above Starship’s pokey pace but far below the 25 mph top speed of Nuro’s R2 vehicle.
And a street and a regulatory scheme that works for a few may not scale up as robots from the likes of Starship and Nuro are joined by others—for instance, Toyota used part of its CES 2020 exhibit to show off such delivery shuttles as its Micro Palette.
What happens when there are 10 or 20 of those?” asks Larco of the streets of tomorrow. Nisenson takes that question further: “What happens when there’s 100?”
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