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Now Uber will send a robot to deliver your food

Serve Robotics
Serve Robotics

If your UberEats delivery driver has repeatedly disobeyed the option marked “leave order at door,” there’s a new way to avoid the awkward face-to-face encounter that comes with your late-night pizza or ice cream pint: robots.

That’s correct. Uber is the latest company to try employing robots to bring food to consumers’ homes. Uber is launching two test programmes in Greater Los Angeles this month to serve Uber Eats, which will include four-wheeled, cartoonish robots with headlights for eyes and self-driving automobiles.

Uber’s robot delivery

From Monday, Uber Eats customers will have the option of having their meals delivered by one of the robots rather than a human. Customers will receive instructions on how to retrieve their food from inside the robot via the Uber app. The Serve robot is shaped like a colourful cooler on wheels with a flip-open lid that reveals a delivery inside. The robot, which will operate in West Hollywood, features headlights that look like eyes, giving it a cartoonish appearance.

A human operator will supervise the robots, which will be operated by Serve Robotics. The vehicles will be self-driving Hyundai sedans from Motional, which will be required to handle larger orders. The startup, which is owned by Hyundai and the automotive technology provider Aptiv, also wants to launch a robo taxi service with Lyft in Las Vegas next year.

Nitty gritties

Orders delivered by Hyundai sedan will be held in a thermal container in the rear seat, where the buyer will pick them up. As a safety measure, Motional will have a human test driver behind the wheel. Deliveries will be overseen by a remote human operator at Serve Robotics, which manages Uber’s sidewalk robots.

According to Noah Zych, Uber’s head of autonomous mobility and delivery, robot deliveries will make up “a very, very small percentage of our deliveries” in the near future.

In the long run, robots may make delivery more inexpensive. Trips that are currently unaffordable to pay for delivery, such as picking up dry cleaning, may become feasible in the future with autonomous deliveries, he said. (Uber originally built self-driving vehicles in-house, but in 2020 it sold its team to Aurora, a self-driving business.) Aurora is still an investor in Uber, and the two companies are collaborating on robotaxis.)

“This is the first chapter of autonomous vehicles performing Uber deliveries,” Zych explained. “We see the future potential, but we have to start where we are now.”

In recent years, food delivery has grown increasingly important to Uber’s bottom line. In the first three months of the year, its delivery revenue of $2.5B matched that of its typical rides operation.

However, Uber’s adjusted EBITDA, a profitability statistic, is lower for food delivery than for ridehailing, suggesting that robots could help. Automating tasks is popular among businesses since it lowers labour expenses and increases profit margins.

Companies have long talked about deploying robots to carry goods to people, but trial programmes have been limited, typical of the autonomous delivery industry, which has long been more hype than substance due to technical and regulatory hurdles. Domino’s, Kroger, and Amazon have all experimented with robot delivery in recent years.

In a 2013 60 Minutes broadcast, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos predicted that drone deliveries would be available in four or five years. Although Prime Air made its first delivery public in 2016, it has yet to begin a regular delivery service. Amazon maintains its goal of making 30-minute drone deliveries to customers.

Scout, Amazon’s own sidewalk robot delivery service, now available. Amazon says it has delivered tens of thousands of parcels in Snohomish County, Washington, Irvine, California, Atlanta, Georgia, and Franklin, Tennessee since public testing began in 2019.

They make up a small portion of Amazon’s overall deliveries, which number in the billions each year.

Uber’s monthly revenue has dropped by more than 26%.

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is one of the biggest players in robot delivery. Wing, Alphabet’s drone delivery service, claims to have done 53,000 commercial deliveries in the first three months of this year, up 355 percent over the same period last year. Wing has offices in Australia’s Logan and Canberra, Virginia’s Christiansburg, Texas’ Dallas-Fort Worth, and Finland’s Helsinki.

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