When customers in downtown Vancouver placed orders with Pizza Hut in September, many of the pies landed on their doorsteps without a courier in sight.
Instead, diners were met by Angie, Hugo or Raja– autonomous robots resembling a cooler on four wheels with eyelike lights. They travelled by sidewalk to customers, who used unique codes to open their lids and reveal their food.
The value proposition for Serve Robotics– a spinoff of Uber’s 2020 food delivery acquisition Postmates that created the trio and a fleet of zero-emission robots– is simple: with slim restaurant margins, a labour crunch and climate change worries ‘“why move a two-pound burrito in a two-ton car?”
A handful of other robotic delivery companies have the same ethos, but their paths to ubiquity are facing several roadblocks.
Delivery robots have been banned from some major cities like Toronto, which argued they are a hazard for people with low mobility or vision, as well as seniors and children. Cyclists already gripe about e-scooters in bike lanes and don’t want robots there either.
“They’re drawing a lot of attention from pedestrians while they’re out on the sidewalk because they’re not seeing them that often and people are excited to see them, but as usage continues to increase, this can cause a lot of congestion on already narrow sidewalks,” said Prabhjot Gill, a McKinsey & Co. associate partner focused on retail.
There’s also worries autonomous robots or ones manned by staff overseas will take jobs away from couriers.
Ali Kashani, Serve’s Vancouver-bred chief executive, considers the criticism to be a natural part of innovation that even the bicycle experienced, when it was invented and many thought it would cause divorce.
He’s tried to quiet concerns by ensuring his robots (Kashani won’t say how many there are) chime and flash their lights to alert people they are around. They are equipped with automatic crash prevention, vehicle collision avoidance and emergency braking.
Ultimately, he thinks they are “a win-win for everybody” because they reduce traffic, boost local commerce and help merchants get food to consumers in a less expensive way.
The environment benefits too because Serve replaces delivery vehicles. Kashani estimates roughly half the deliveries made in the country cover less than 2.5 miles and 90 per cent are completed by car. About two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are attributable to people using personal cars for local shopping and errands.
“There’s a lot of reasons to replace our cars with these robots as quickly as we really can, but there’s no reason for us to make anyone an enemy,” Kashani said.
Knowing how much opposition new ideas can face, Serve is careful to engage with governments and authorities before launching in a city, even if it has no legislation allowing or banning robots.
However, David Lepofsky, chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, said there’s no way for such robots and humans to coexist because they will always present a tripping hazard and worse, they could be used to transport contraband or explosives.
He insists the fight he and others have waged to keep robots off sidewalks is not an attack on innovation.
“It’s not like we’re denying people a service,” he said. “We’ve got a way to deliver pizzas that we’ve had since we’ve had pizza delivery. It’s called human beings.”
Manish Dhankher, Pizza Hut Canada’s chief customer officer, agrees no pizza delivery is worth risking somebody’s safety, but said his company only partnered with Serve once the robots had made thousands of injury-free trips.
Serve robots only made nearby deliveries for Pizza Hut’s 1725 Robson St. location for two weeks, but the pilot generated “childlike excitement” from customers and had a 95 per cent satisfaction rate.
Dhankher stresses the goal was modernizing pizza deliveries, not cost reduction. Couriers made the same number of deliveries they did before the robots were in use.
But Pizza Hut isn’t ready to roll out robots permanently.
“We want to learn more,” he said. “What happens when you put this in the snowy areas of Saskatchewan and what happens when there is freezing rain?”
Another question: what happens when cities won’t welcome the robots?
Tiny Mile, a company behind a series of pink, heart-eyed robots named Geoffrey, knows the answer.
Years after Geoffrey started making Toronto deliveries for delivery services like Foodora, Lepofsky and others argued people may be impeded by stopped or stalled devices or unable to quickly detect their presence.
Toronto’s city council voted last December to prohibit the devices that run on anything but muscle power from sidewalks, bike paths and pedestrian ways until the province implements a pilot project for such devices.
Geoffrey was then spotted in Ottawa before the city confirmed such robots aren’t permitted there either and Tiny Mile decamped from Canada completely.
“We almost went bankrupt,” said Ignacio Tartavull, Tiny Mile’s chief executive.
“It was basically a miracle we survived.”
To keep Geoffrey alive, Tiny Mile headed to Florida and North Carolina.
“It was love at first sight,” Tartavull said. “We spoke with cities and they were basically competing for us to go there.”
He believes that adoration will spread as the cost of robot deliveries– now roughly $1– sink to 10 cents in the next seven years.
“It’s likely going to take a few years before we have it in the big cities but in the long term, it’s kind of undoubtable because the technology is here, it works and we can deliver on time and at a much lower cost,” he said.
As for Serve, it’s focused on Los Angeles right now, but Kashani said its mission is to get five per cent of delivery vehicles off the road in the next five years.
“But I definitely hope that if you fast forward one or two decades, these robots would be doing more local transportation of goods… so that we can not rely on cars.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2022.