Sep 6, 2022 - Technology

Delivery robots aren't quite ready to roll

Image of a tiny delivery robot trying to cross a broad boulevard with a heavy truck approaching.
A Kiwibot delivery robot trying to cross Michigan Ave. in Detroit. Photo courtesy of the city of Detroit

Sidewalk delivery robots are cute and cool, but pilot tests in four U.S. cities found that it takes more than smart technology for a successful deployment.

Why it matters: Automakers and tech giants are pouring billions of dollars into everything from sidewalk bots to self-driving cars and delivery trucks, and regulators are scrambling to figure out how to manage them.

  • Often overlooked: Do they actually make people's lives better?

Driving the news: The pilots — in Pittsburgh, Miami-Dade County, Detroit and San Jose — originally sought to examine the socioeconomic changes that autonomous vehicles might bring if widely deployed.

  • The project, supported by $5.25 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, intended to test the impact of passenger robotaxis, but researchers switched to automated delivery robots during the pandemic.

Details: The cities partnered with Kiwibot, a maker of sidewalk delivery bots, to test different use cases on real streets and to explore ways to engage the community in decision-making.

  • The pilots were slightly different in each city, but they shared common objectives: learn about the technology, educate the public, and collaborate with private businesses to refine robot deliveries.

What they found: In some cases, it wasn't the robot that failed, but the local infrastructure.

  • In Pittsburgh, for example, robots had difficulty navigating rough sidewalks with overgrown bushes.
  • In Detroit, robots had a hard time making it across wide boulevards before the light turned red.
  • Longer crossing times and accessible curbs would help everyone, not just robots, says Lilian Coral, director of Knight’s national strategy and technology innovation program.

Between the lines: Autonomous delivery works in controlled environments, but is not ready to take over critical tasks such as delivering meals or medication for elderly shut-ins.

  • "What if the tech doesn't work that day? What is the backup plan to still deliver services?" said Nico Larco, director of the Urbanism Next Center at the University of Oregon.
  • A report, scheduled for release later today, offers lessons for how cities can deploy AVs, pointing out that success depends on more than just the technology.
  • Participating local businesses need support, sidewalks and crosswalks have to be passable, and the public must have a say in how delivery bots are deployed, the study concluded.

The bottom line: As autonomous vehicles keep evolving, the public has a right to have a voice in their deployment and cities need to better understand the technology.

  • "Companies need more time to test and perfect these technologies on real streets with people, and this is where cities, residents and the private sector need to come together to innovate," Coral said.

What's next: The next set of pilots will begin later this year, she said.

  • Detroit will be exploring the impact of robotaxis, and Miami-Dade will test an autonomous shuttle.
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