Delivery Robots Aren't Ready—When They Could Be Needed Most


Starship and others building robots for sidewalks have faced criticism for operating there, where they compete with pedestrians and people in wheelchairs for space. San Francisco, for example, has only approved one company’s robots—cheery yellow ones built by delivery app Postmates—to temporarily operate on a limited number of sidewalks. (One local politician suggested the things would be more useful picking up needles than delivering food.) As a result, sidewalk-bound robots must be cautious and slow, moving no faster than a human jog. Still, Starship robots have been okayed to operate in at least eight states.

Another startup, Nuro, has shifted its modus operandi during the pandemic, away from home deliveries. Nuro was founded by pedigreed veterans of Google’s self-driving car project, and it received a $940 million infusion by Softbank last year. It had signed delivery deals with Domino’s and grocery chain Kroger prior to the pandemic; its toaster-like bot is built to travel in the street at speeds up to 25 mph. Earlier this year, it gained a rare permit to operate its driverless vehicle on public roads in California, and an exemption from the US Department of Transportation to take to the streets.

But today, Nuro is operating a few robots at two temporary field hospitals in California, the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento and the San Mateo County Event Center—both self-contained campuses. There, the robots are delivering food and medical supplies like fresh linens and protective equipment, traveling at max speeds of 5 mph outdoors and 2 mph indoors. Health care workers can open the robots with a contact-free thumbs-up.

Even Nuro’s president and cofounder, Dave Ferguson, says the bot isn’t yet suited for unassisted delivery to American homes. Nuro’s robots face the same technical hurdles as other autonomous vehicles—ensuring that their software can handle not just finding their way through a neighborhood, but any number of unlikely situations they may confront. For now, each robot is typically followed by a chase car with two workers monitoring its movements. But that’s a social distancing no-go.

“Fundamentally, it’s that the technology is not ready at scale to deploy,” says Ferguson. “We’re trying hard, I promise.”

Ann Arbor, Michigan-based robotic-tech maker Refraction AI has also had to consider its humans during the pandemic. Like many other autonomous vehicle companies, the startup employs teleoperators to monitor its nascent technology remotely and to intervene if something goes wrong. “The tech is not necessarily good enough right now that you can do it without having someone watching it,” says Matthew Johnson-Roberson, the company’s CEO and cofounder. After Refraction closed its office last month, the company had to ensure that its teleoperators had the equipment—and importantly, the steady Wi-Fi—to monitor the not-quite-self-driving bots from their homes. To scale up the business, the company will need to sharpen the robots’ software so that one person can monitor several bots at once.

A delivery robot on a residential street

Refraction AI on Monday launched a free grocery delivery service in its home town of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Courtesy of Refraction AI

Refraction, which has built about 20 of its nearly-5-foot-high robots meant to travel in bike lanes, makes money by charging restaurants and grocery stores a 15 percent commission on deliveries, a rate equal to or lower than that charged by human-powered delivery apps. But Johnson-Roberson says the robotic delivery industry still needs deep pockets to become ubiquitous. “I think at this point it’s really a question of, ‘Do people want to commit the money required to make that happen?’” he says. “My sense is that if we and others can do enough to convince people that it makes sense, and do it at some sense of scale, we can.” With $100 million, he says, Refraction could launch thousands of robots in eight to 15 cities.

For now, though, the company is experimenting. On Monday, it launched a free grocery delivery service in Ann Arbor, without a store partner. Residents order via the company’s app, and an employee decked out in protective gear selects and purchases items before placing them into robots curbside.