UPDATE: Aug. 19, 2019: Postmates received a permit to test its Serve delivery robots in San Francisco on Aug. 15. The delivery platform will be allowed to operate up to three vehicles at once in the Potrero Hills and Inner Mission sections of the city, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. The robots are permitted to run at speeds of up to 3 miles per hour. Postmates can only use the robots for delivery on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., and the machines must be accompanied by a human operator within 30 feet.
- Postmates is now the first food delivery service to secure a permit to test delivery robots in San Francisco, reports TechCrunch.
- The permit will last for 180 days and authorize testing on three autonomous vehicles.
- San Francisco voted to ban street robot testing without government permits in 2017 after a number of companies were running pilots on city streets.
Autonomous delivery is one of the buzziest topics in food, but questions remain over whether robotic vehicles are a logistically efficient and scalable way to make deliveries in crowded cities. San Francisco city officials restricted food delivery robots primarily out of concern for pedestrian safety such that now, obtaining a coveted permit may be the biggest bottleneck to testing and potentially scaling this technology.
Despite this bottleneck, a few other companies are in the race to roll out delivery robots including San Francisco logistics startup Marble, which raised $10 million last year toward its endeavor and is also waiting for permit approval. Domino's has been an aggressive player in driverless delivery, partnering with Nuro on a pilot project in Houston, Texas.
Postmates is focusing heavily on improving its semi-autonomous robot, named Serve, and working out some of the kinks, such as making it "socially intelligent" and able to interact with people who pass it on the street. Postmates rolled out Serve in December in Los Angeles. This version has cameras and lidar to navigate congested city streets while carrying 50 pounds for up to 25 miles on one charge. A human pilot monitored the fleet remotely. In recent months, the company has made a few upgrades to Serve to lighten its weight and to make it more durable, according to TechCrunch.
Technology companies are still exploring ways to keep the robots tamper-proof: autonomous delivery service Starship Technologies, which rolled out delivery robots to George Mason University this year, installed alarms and locks to their robots to prevent tampering.
Postmates isn't planning on swapping out delivery drivers for robots just yet. Instead, it wants to use the bots to bolster drivers' delivery routes. For example, a robot could collect an order from a restaurant and transport it to a driver waiting a couple blocks away. It currently makes 90% of deliveries by car, but half of those could be completed by walking, which would cut down on delivery time in crowded cities where traffic puts pressure on delivery windows.
The biggest boon to Postmates' autonomous delivery success could be that it has worked with San Francisco supervisor Norman Yee and labor and advocacy groups that are creating a framework for roving robots. Postmates is no doubt advocating for policies that will buoy its future plans for the technology.