Redwood City looks to the future with approval of nine-month delivery robot pilot program

 

It’s six o’clock in the evening and you’re hungry.

You pull out your smartphone and go to your favorite local restaurant’s website. At the checkout screen, you see the option to have your order delivered via Starship Delivery Robot.

Fifteen to 30 minutes later, instead of a knock, you get a notification on your device’s screen, and you open your front door to the face of the future.

It’s a sleek, bubble-shaped machine about the size of a small carry-on suitcase. On the outside, it has a glossy-white finish with black detailing and red and green lights. On the inside, it carries your food.

Starship Technologies, a London-based company, created a delivery robot designed to transport food, groceries and parcels from businesses to customers. According to Henry Harris-Burland, the company’s marketing and communications manager, Starship’s delivery bot is the world’s first of its kind.

  • Starship Technologies’ delivery robot sits parked outside on a San Francisco sidewalk, on the morning of Nov. 16, 2016. (Tori Owens/Peninsula Press)

Redwood City City Council recently approved a nine-month pilot program for the delivery bot that will begin January 2017. Along with Washington D.C., Redwood City is one of the first U.S. cities where the delivery robots will hit the streets.

“We’re looking to commit long-term to Redwood City,” Harris-Burland said in an interview. “We don’t just want to do our nine-month pilot program. We’d love to stay there for many, many years into the future.”

Starship Technologies’ pilot program in Redwood City comes at a time when some local restaurants and businesses are struggling to hire in-house drivers, due to an influx of third-party companies entering the delivery industry.

“It’s hard to fill almost all positions right now. It’s difficult because you also have the DoorDashes and everyone else out hiring in the same market,” the owner of the restaurant chain Pizza My Heart, Chuck Hammers, said in an interview. “When you look at it from a hiring standpoint we would welcome these little robots; if you need two more you can order them, where you can’t always find a good driver,” Hammers said.

Starship’s delivery robots travel via sidewalks on six wheels at no more than four miles per hour. One bot can hold up to twenty pounds of goods. The company has completed 12,200 miles of testing in 58 cities and 16 countries around the world, and, according to Harris-Burland, it hasn’t had any incidents.

Daily robotic deliveries are already taking place in parts of Europe, including London, Germany and Switzerland. Redwood City’s pilot program will start with about five robots traveling on the town’s sidewalks making deliveries, and potentially grow to 20 robots, according to Harris-Burland.

The robot is 99 percent autonomous, Harris-Burland said, with one percent of human oversight in order to assist the robot in difficult or out-of-the-ordinary situations, including crossing the street.

“We always want that element of human oversight and human control,” Harris-Burland said.

Although the pilot program hasn’t been banned by any communities, some city councils are concerned the goods inside the robots – or the robots themselves – will get stolen, Harris-Burland said.

Although there’s no doubt theft will occur once there are more robots on the streets in more cities, Harris-Burland said, the company has theft prevention measures in place to avoid the issue, including a locking lid which can only be unlocked through a unique button sent to the customer’s smartphone, alarms that are activated if the robot is picked up and a tracking system that knows where the robot is within an inch at all times.

According to Catherine Ralston, the economic development manager in Redwood City, a high concentration of the city’s residents use delivery services. “Seeing that we already had a good residential population that was willing to accept deliveries, [Starship] thought that this would be a good opportunity to introduce a new technology that does kind of the same service.”

From human services such as DoorDash, UberEATS and Munchery, to high-tech practices like drones, businesses now also have a number of ways to transport goods beyond the traditional company delivery driver that they are finding may be more cost effective.

“When you put financial pressure on restaurants, which is what is happening across the board now, restaurant owners are going to look for ways to leverage technology to reduce costs, and labor costs are part of that,” said Peter Katz, managing partner of Counter Intelligence LLC, a holding company for eight burger joints in Northern California.

According to Harris-Burland, the “last mile industry” – a business-to-business term used to describe the last mile of delivery from, say, a store or restaurant to a customer’s house – is the most inefficient and expensive part of the transportation of goods, accounting for over 50 percent of transport and shipping costs.

“To visualize it, think about a big, five-ton van stopping and starting outside of a hundred houses in a neighborhood every single day, throwing parcels over fences and leaving them on doorsteps,” Harris-Burland said.

Starship Technologies aims to get its robotic service to one dollar per delivery, but the company is not there yet. Currently, the company does not have an exact cost of its delivery service, said Harris-Burland. However, by reducing vehicle and labor costs, Harris-Burland said, Starship Technologies can lower delivery costs to a buck: a possibility that excites restaurateurs.

Human delivery has become less cost-effective for restaurants, Hammers said. According to the Pizza My Heart owner, with additional payments such as gas money and benefits, it can cost the company upwards of $12 to deliver one pizza via a human delivery driver.

Aside from reducing labor costs, Starship Technologies also wants to decrease traffic congestion downtown. According to Harris-Burland, one delivery bot can take, on average, 10 consumer cars off the road since each robot can complete at least 10 deliveries a day.

“Driving 1.5 miles to our local convenience store to pick up two bags of groceries in our two-tonne [sic] car – makes no sense!” Harris-Burland said in an email.

Benefits aside, restaurant owners are concerned new technologies will eliminate delivery drivers’ jobs.

“It’s difficult because it involves our people. We like having our pizza drivers, but if everyone starts delivering by robot, then we will obviously have to deliver by robot,” Hammers said.

Both Katz and Hammers agreed that delivery robots are beneficial for small orders, but human delivery drivers are still needed for large catering orders, which, Hammers explained, is where employees make most of their money since the bigger the delivery, the bigger the tip.

According to Harris-Burland, delivery drivers and vans are still the most efficient method of delivery over the first ten miles. Starship’s delivery robots take over only the last one or two miles, he said.

Still, Hammers is concerned about losing customer relationships should delivery robots be used instead of humans. “We’ve had the same panic with DoorDash, where you hand your product off to someone that is not trained in your way,” he said. On the other hand, Hammers said, when a customer chooses a third-party delivery option, they often have different expectations of service.

According to Harris-Burland, the reason the pilot program hasn’t received instant approvals from some city councils is because it is a completely new form of device that hasn’t been seen before.

“I’d rather not be the guinea pig,” said Mark Olbert, a member of the San Carlos City Council. “We could benefit from it if we’re the 18th city or 100th city to adopt it, and meanwhile all the bugs will get worked out.”