- Postmates will unleash its first autonomous delivery rover called Serve in Los Angeles early next year, the company announced Thursday. Designed to scoot unobtrusively down the sidewalk, the cart — a modern yellow, black and white design with big, Wall-E eyes in front — features a touchscreen and cameras to interact with people.
- Serve can carry 50 pounds and travel 30 miles on a single charge and is has Velodyne Lidar sensors and a Nvidia Xavier processor (the same technology used by many autonomous vehicles) and a light ring in the eyes to signal changes in direction.
- Postmates plans to roll out the rover in key U.S. cities throughout 2019.
Serve was the brainchild of Ali Kashani, the robotics pro Postmates hired in 2017. The bot won't replace human delivery workers, he told Wired, but rather increase efficiency in their routes. Postmates delivers 90% of its orders by car, but more than half could be easily reached by walking. Sending a car into that traffic takes longer than sending a bot onto the sidewalk that rolls faster than a delivery person could walk. The delivery company analyzed seven years of data to understand the most efficient way for food and other goods to travel through crowded cities.
"Ultimately, we believe that goods should move through cities at nearly zero cost to consumers," co-founder and CEO Bastian Lehmann said in the release.
Competitors have thought the same thing, notably Uber, Amazon and Alibaba, China’s e-commerce and technology leader. McKinsey estimates that autonomous vehicles will deliver 80% of parcels by 2025, though drones will fill voids in rural areas and bike couriers in cities. Locker pickups also will likely become commonplace, but today's delivery model won't disappear soon.
These changes will happen regardless of consumers voicing a resounding yes. Alibaba’s Chinese customers already embrace robot servers and warehouse-like systems that transport goods from the hands of customers to the kitchen. Automated machines are grinding beef and assembling hamburgers from scratch, making coffee, pizza and cocktails. U.S. consumers tend to exude more hesitation toward such dramatic changes, but 20% use voice technology for Google searches.
Sidewalk-roaming bots can't enter the sidewalks as easily as people, however, and Postmate's bot will contend with L.A.'s mayor on exactly how, where and when Serve can roam, LA Weekly reported. Electric scooters have run into some trouble in San Francisco, where a rideshare increased their ubiquity and peeved pedestrians. A.I. creators might like to think their bots deal with traffic better than distracted humans, but Serve hasn't seen much traction yet.
Still, passersby and Postmates customers could connect more intimately with this little bot than a faceless, mechanical drone, which Amazon and chains including Domino’s and Pieology have tested. Pizza Hut unveiled a robot pizza delivery truck with Toyota. Serve's eyes provide an endearing cute quality and people can interact with a touchscreen rather than still-spotty voice technology.
That human connection might be necessary in the inevitable drive toward automated food and package delivery. Consumers demand reliability and timeliness, but cost remains the number one inhibitor in purchasing decisions. Restaurants have reacted to the consumer shift by redesigning their spaces to seamlessly handle delivery and takeout orders. Why couldn't the meal be dropped in an autonomous roving cart?