Uber sends sidewalk robots out to deliver food
Uber is turning to sidewalk robots to deliver meals in California. The ride-sharing service’s food division, Uber Eats, is using a network of autonomous vehicles to drop orders off to customers in a pilot in and around Hollywood.
“It basically is like a self-driving car. If you've seen any of them kind of in various cities being tested, it's the same set of sensors, LIDAR, cameras, you know, GPS, but in a smaller form factor in a way that actually works today”, explains Ali Kashani, CEO of Serve Robotics which makes the units.
Orders are placed by customers using the Uber Eats app which then randomly assigns them a robot or a human-based on factors like proximity and whether the user has opted to meet their driver outside.
The robots, which resemble shopping carts, are given human names like Zoe and Quinn, and human traits like light-up eyes to make them seem more relatable and less intimidating to passers-by as they trundle along the sidewalk. They even utter greetings like ‘Excuse me’ as they pass each other in the street.
“If you look at the robots, they blink. That little blinking behaviour is actually really important for conveying that this has an internal life. It's a thing that kind of makes decisions and lives”, says Kashani, adding: “We wanted something that belongs on the sidewalk, but something that's familiar and not frightening, but also kind of fresh and fun. So if people see these robots, they see the eyes, they see the personality, it actually, you know, it adds something to your day.”
Local restauranteurs tell Reuters that the robots are fast becoming local celebrities. “Every time the robot drives by, like.. all the customers just get really excited. You know, people who are just walking by will come out and take a photo” laughs Maximiliano Weschler who runs LALA’s Argentine Grill in Hollywood. The restaurant has been involved in the pilot since the start.
“From day one, I was a big advocate for it. I saw the potential in it. And I still see the potential and I see that this is the direction that we're heading for the future. So, you know, it's for me, it's exciting. I think that it's going to be way more efficient in the future, but it's not there just yet. I think that we know, our managers having to package the bag and physically take it out themselves to the robot... That's a little.. that takes us a little bit longer than, you know, if an Uber eats driver, Postmates driver comes in and picks up the bag from inside themselves”, Weschler adds.
Serve Robotics has been trialling the robots for two years but only recently integrated with Uber Eats. Originally a division of rival delivery service Postmates, which was acquired by Uber in 2020, it’s now spun off into a separate organization, allowing it to also explore other delivery opportunities outside of food:
“If you fast forward a few years, they're going to move a lot of other things. And if you need groceries or alcohol or pharmacy or basically anything else, in fact. I think it's a bit of an iPhone moment where we may not know what people are going to move with these once they become so readily available”, Kashani tells Reuters.
“People are still excited about it. They’ll still get close to them. They see them, they try to interact with them. So this is the type of interaction that we've had so far. As we start to grow and people get more accustomed to this, this will be just like seeing a regular car anywhere so people get more accustomed to it and we’ll continue to expand”, adds Eduardo Rojas, Manager of Autonomous Mobility & Delivery at Uber Eats.
Although the vehicles are fully autonomous, they’re monitored by human ‘pilots’ at a nearby base in case of any issues.
“I make sure that the robot doesn't go off course, isn't going to crash into anything or if there's anything in its way, I kind of move it out of its way and help the robot” explains pilot, Sarahi Pelayo from behind her desk in the control centre.
Uber’s also working on a second, separate pilot using autonomous cars to deliver food in nearby Santa Monica. That scheme launched last month and is in collaboration with Motional - a partnership between Hyundai and Aptiv. A human is present in the car at all times as a precaution due to regulatory issues, but Uber says the whole interaction is carried out as if they weren’t there.
“We believe that there's space for human drivers and there's a space for autonomous vehicles. They coexist very well together, they’re complementary to each other. And together they create what we talk about as the hybrid network. So this hybrid network that has humans and autonomous vehicles in it, we believe is very powerful for the whole marketplace”, says Rojas.m