Axios What's Next

Picture of a futuristic looking skyline.

Robots are criss-crossing cities worldwide with groceries and other goods, giving researchers a chance to find out what makes some bots succeed where others stumble, Joann reports today.

Today's Smart Brevity count: 924 words ... 3½ minutes.

1 big thing: Delivery robots not ready to roll

Image of a tiny delivery robot trying to cross a wide boulevard in Detroit as a semi-truck approaches.

A Kiwibot delivery robot tries 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, Joann Muller reports.

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.

  • 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.

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2. Women's self-employment boom

Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Center for American Progress; Chart: Simran Parwani/Axios

More women are self-employed now than before the pandemic — particularly Black and Hispanic women, finds a new analysis from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Axios' Emily Peck reports.

Why it matters: The likely explanation here is not simply an explosion of entrepreneurship, but also a reaction to the child care worker shortage.

  • Mothers are scrambling to care for children at home and still earn money.

By the numbers: In the first half of 2022, the share of working women who report being self-employed rose by 0.7 percentage points, to 8.2%. That's slightly more than twice the increase men reported.

  • The share of Black women who said they were self-employed in 2022 rose more than 1 percentage point, from 4.1% pre-pandemic to 5.2%. Hispanic women saw a similar increase. (For white women, the number ticked up by 0.6 percentage points.)

Zoom out: There aren't enough people working in child care to meet demand.

  • Child care employment levels are 8.4% lower than they were in February 2020, while overall private sector employment has recovered.

Read the rest.

3. Smart A/C users get locked out

Illustration of the sun with a thermostat dial on it.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Thousands of Colorado residents were recently locked out of their smart thermostats during a heat wave, local ABC affiliate Denver7 reports.

Driving the news: 22,000 Xcel Energy customers who signed up for the "Colorado AC Rewards" program were blocked from changing the temperature on their thermostats for hours last week during an "energy emergency," per Denver7.

  • Customers who sign up for the program get credits toward their monthly bills in exchange for surrendering some autonomy over their home temperature.

The big picture: Utilities are trying to get customers to switch to externally controlled heating and cooling systems to better manage electricity demand during peak times.

Yes, but: Taking part in such programs can mean giving up the ability to blast the A/C during the hottest summer days.

What they're saying: "Let's remember that this is something that customers choose to be a part of based on the incentives," Emmett Romine, vice president of customer solutions and innovation at Xcel, told Denver7.

  • "It helps everybody for people to participate in these programs. It is a bit uncomfortable for a short period of time, but it's very, very helpful."

Would you sign up for a similar program? Let us know at [email protected].

4. 📸 Commode-ore 64

 A robot scrubs a toilet at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, China, on Friday, Sept. 2, 2022.

Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A robot cleans a toilet at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, China, on Sept. 2

5. One fun thing: Webb eyes exoplanet

Exoplanet HIP 65426 b in different bands of infrared light. The star indicates the location of the planet's host star. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA, A Carter (UCSC), the ERS 1386 team, and A. Pagan (STScI)

Exoplanet HIP 65426 b in different bands of infrared light. The star indicates the location of the planet's host star. Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA, A Carter (UCSC), the ERS 1386 team and A. Pagan (STScI)

The James Webb Space Telescope team recently released its first direct images of a planet outside our solar system, Axios' Alison Snyder reports.

Why it matters: Direct images of these distant planets could provide more details about their composition and formation — and open the next chapter in the search for life beyond Earth.

Details: JWST captured images of exoplanet HIP 65426 b in four different bands of infrared light.

  • The planet, which was discovered in 2017 using an instrument on the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile, is a gas giant about 6 to 12 times the mass of Jupiter.

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A hearty thanks to What's Next copy editor Amy Stern.

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