Photo: The Canadian Press
An autonomous robot delivers pizza from Pizza Hut in Vancouver.
When customers in downtown Vancouver placed their orders from Pizza Hut in September, many pies landed on their doorsteps with no courier in sight.
Instead, diners are met by Angie, Hugo, or Raja—autonomous, radiator-like robots on four wheels with lights-like eyes. They traveled down the sidewalk to customers, who used unique codes to open their lids and reveal their food.
The value proposition for Serve Robotics — part of Uber’s 2020 acquisition of food delivery company Postmates that created the trio and a fleet of zero-emission robots — is simple: With the restaurant’s slim profit margins, a labor crunch and climate change concerns, “why move two pound burritos in A two-ton car?
A handful of other robotic delivery companies have a similar ethos, but their paths to ubiquity face many roadblocks.
Delivery robots have been banned from some major cities like Toronto, which have argued they pose a danger to people with reduced mobility or vision, as well as the elderly and children. Cyclists already resent e-scooters in bike lanes and don’t want bots either.
“They attract a lot of attention from pedestrians while they’re out on the sidewalk because they don’t see much and people get excited to see them, but as usage continues to increase, it can cause a lot of congestion on already narrow sidewalks,” said Prabhjot Gill, associate partner at McKinsey & Co who focuses on retail.
There are also concerns that autonomous robots or those manned by offshore employees will take jobs away from carriers.
Vancouver-born Surf CEO Ali Kashani considers criticism a natural part of the innovation that even the bicycle, when it was invented, was thought by many to cause divorce.
He’s tried to allay fears by making sure his robots (Kashani won’t say how many) chime and flash their lights to alert people around them. It is equipped with automatic collision prevention, vehicle collision avoidance and emergency braking.
In the end, he believes they are a “win-win” because they reduce traffic, boost local trade, and help merchants get food to consumers in a more affordable way.
The environment also benefits because Serve replaces delivery vehicles. Kashani estimates that nearly half of the country’s deliveries cover less than 2.5 miles and 90 percent are completed by car. About 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are attributed to people using personal cars for domestic shopping and errands.
“There are a lot of reasons to replace our cars with these robots as quickly as we can really, but there is no reason for us to make anyone an enemy,” Kashani said.
Knowing how much opposition new ideas could run into, Cerf makes sure to communicate with governments and authorities before launching them into the city, even if they don’t have legislation allowing or banning bots.
However, David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, said there was no way for such robots and humans to coexist because they would always pose a tripping hazard and worse, they could be used to transport contraband or explosives.
He insists that the battle he and others have waged to keep bots off the sidewalk is not an attack on innovation.
“It’s not like we’re disenfranchising people,” he said. “We have a way of delivering pizza that we’ve had since we had pizza deliveries. It’s called humans.”
Manish Dhankher, chief customer officer for Pizza Hut Canada, agrees that there’s nothing worth risking pizza delivery, but says his company partnered with Surf only once the robots had made thousands of injury-free trips.
Service bots have been making deliveries at a nearby Pizza Hut location at 1725 Robson Street for two weeks, but the pilot elicited “childish excitement” from customers and achieved a 95 percent satisfaction rate.
Dhankhar says the goal was to modernize pizza deliveries, not cut costs. Couriers made about the same number of deliveries as they did before the use of bots.
But Pizza Hut isn’t ready to roll out bots permanently.
“We want to know more,” he said. “What happens when you put this in the snowy areas of Saskatchewan and what happens when there’s freezing rain?”
Another question: what happens when cities don’t welcome robots?
Tiny Mile, the company behind a series of pink, heart-eyed robots named Geoffrey, knows the answer.
Years after Jeffrey started his Toronto delivery for delivery services like Foodora, Lepofsky and others argued that people could be incapacitated by dead or stuck appliances or be unable to quickly detect their presence.
Toronto City Council voted last December to ban devices that act on nothing but muscle power from sidewalks, bike paths and pedestrian paths until the province implements a pilot project for such devices.
Jeffrey was then spotted in Ottawa before the city confirmed that such bots weren’t allowed there either, and Canada’s Tiny Mile went off completely.
“We were on the verge of bankruptcy,” said Ignacio Tartafull, CEO of Tiny Mile.
It was a miracle we survived.”
To keep Jeffrey alive, Tiny Mile headed to Florida and North Carolina.
“It was love at first sight,” said Tartaful. “We talked to the cities and they were basically competing to get there.”
He thinks the adoration will spread as the cost of delivering robots — now roughly $1 — drops to 10 cents in the next seven years.
“It’s probably going to be a few years before we get it in the big cities, but in the long run, there’s no doubt about it because the technology is here, it works and we can deliver it on time and for much less money,” he said.
As for Serve, it’s focused on Los Angeles for now, but Kashani said its mission is to get five percent of delivery vehicles off the road in the next five years.
“But I certainly hope that if I fast-forward a decade or two, these robots will move more goods locally… so that we can no longer be so dependent on cars.”
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