Americans choosing to —or forced to—stay inside during the Covid-19 pandemic are leaning heavily on food delivery. Instacart sales soared 98 percent, and Amazon Fresh sales 68 percent, in March, compared with February, according to the consumer analytics firm Second Measure.
Restaurants that can’t open their doors are tapping delivery services to preserve some revenue. But many delivery workers say they don’t feel safe. Workers for Instacart have said they lack the gloves, face masks, and disinfectant to do the job safely; others who have received equipment complain it’s subpar. And restaurant owners chafe at the high commissions of app-based services like DoorDash, Postmates, and Uber Eats.
So it would appear to be the perfect time for the swarms of delivery robots funded by more than $1 billion in venture capital in recent years. But it turns out that the tech isn’t quite ready to always operate without human help, and it will need serious additional cash to get there. Some business models remain opaque. And robot makers must learn to navigate not just US streets, but the complex rules that govern their use.
Some robot makers are using the surge of interest during the pandemic to test and demonstrate their tech in new ways. Starship Technologies says it has launched its smallish, sidewalk-traversing delivery robots in five new places in the US since shelter-in-place orders hit, bringing its total number of deployments to 12.
Henry Harris-Burland, Starship’s vice president of marketing, says his company already knows how to make money. Its 55-pound robots are built to run at slower speeds on sidewalks, carry about 20 pounds, and cost no more than a high-end laptop, he says. A robot needs to travel an area just once before it is sufficiently well-mapped to start service.
Starship typically strikes deals with local government officials, university campuses, or retailers before it enters a market, the company says. That may include taking a cut of each delivery. In Fairfax, Virginia, the 42-year-old Greek and Italian restaurant Havabite Eatery launched robot delivery with Starship in mid-April. Since then, the company has fulfilled five to 15 orders per day through the service. Like others who have partnered with Starship, restaurant owner Ida Beylee says customers are delighted by the robots. But she’s not excited to pay Starship’s fee, after a one-month free trial. “Twenty percent is big money,” Beylee says, more than what she pays GrubHub for its delivery service. She doesn’t think the Havabite can afford it, especially because it was not approved for a government-backed small business loan.
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.
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.
Samuel Sullivan, a driver for Uber and Uber Eats, says he’s not particularly nervous about robotic competitors. He happened upon a Starship robot while delivering food in Fairfax last week. He watched as the robot paused a long while at the corner of a quiet street. (“The robots will pause at busy road crossings and only cross when it is safe to do so,” says Starship spokesperson Janel Steinberg. “The robot will wait at a road crossing longer than when it is traveling on the sidewalk.”)
“People have been telling me for five years now that, ‘Oh you’re not going to have a job next year because all the cars are going to be self-driving,’” Sullivan says. Yet here he is. To be honest, he kind of loved the little thing. “I find it so adorable,” he says.
Updated, 4-28-2019, 9:20pm ET: This story has been updated with Dave Ferguson's correct title at Nuro, and to remove a reference to the company starting deliveries with its bot.