Will delivery robots take over sidewalks 10 years from now?
While early tests of sidewalk delivery bots fizzled out at major companies like Amazon and FedEx, industry insiders have high hopes for the tech. Still, manufacturers have taken a measured approach to growth in the U.S. amid a tighter funding environment and regulatory complexities, and many are split on best use cases for the bots.
To better understand how sidewalk bots will fit into the last-mile delivery puzzle, we asked four experts for their takes on what U.S. adoption will look like in a decade. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
CEO and co-founder of delivery bot developer and operator Serve Robotics
I think you're going to see this in every densely populated area or medium density [area], I would even say. So you don't have to be in the middle of downtown Los Angeles for this to make sense.
In the Bay Area, you have all these smaller cities like Palo Alto and Mountain View. Just between San Francisco and San Jose, there's a dozen different smaller cities that have a downtown with like five streets, where there's restaurants and then a couple-mile radius with a lot of households and population.
These robots, you're going to see them in all of those environments as the last mile part of the supply chain, basically.
University of Oregon professor of architecture and urban design, director of the Urbanism Next Center and co-director of the Sustainable Cities Institute
My sense is that we're going to be seeing a lot more consolidation in terms of the number of companies that are looking at these things, and I think we're going to have a lot more narrowly defined use cases and business models.
I think right now we're still a little bit in the 'this could solve everything and it could provide services for all these different situations' [mindset]. And I think that we're thankfully starting to get to a point where we're being more realistic about which ones of these make the most sense, and which make the most sense in terms of providing service.
My sense is we'll see a narrowing of the discussion around these things, but hopefully an expansion of actual deployment in those situations.
Executive director of Metro21, a smart cities institute at Carnegie Mellon University
Realistically, I think you're going to see it more in urban as opposed to rural [areas] because of logistics and issues related to that.
In New York City, you see it's impossible to drive a truck in these really urban areas, and so it's going to be a combination of humans [and robots] helping support the human. You're going to see the delivery person who is in charge, and then you're going to see a bot that's carrying a heavy load that, frankly, may be too much for a human to do alone. It allows a human to do that delivery and go to places, so I think we're going to see that in more urban areas.
I always think it's going to have a human component to it. What I'm interested in also seeing is where will that engage with drones? This idea of smaller deliveries in areas where it's a combination of a drone and a delivery bot, I think that's going to be some neat interaction.
What I hope for is that it's done equitably, and not just in rich, affluent areas, but in urban areas, for rich and poor, and helping people who are disabled and the elderly. I'm hoping we'll see more of those products helping people like that, because they have buying power too, right? They should have an opportunity to be a part of that world.
CEO and co-founder of delivery bot company Coco
I do think in 10 years, you're going to have a whole different suite of vehicles for different neighborhoods. So you'll have a vehicle that looks very different for the suburbs versus a New York or a Chicago.
I think you're going to start seeing buildings and businesses really adapt their infrastructure to support this. We would love if every building had the ability for us to go up the elevator, for example, and I think consumers will begin demanding this. So I think that will happen as long as you start getting this adoption. If you can deliver the same items for a 10x lower cost of delivery, consumers will naturally start demanding this from their building.
You'll get a lot of cars off the road, you can get back more space that's reserved for parking. You're going to allow local businesses to thrive to compete, not just with food, but with all the kinds of categories that maybe an Amazon would be delivering. And I don't think it'll just be a dense urban thing. It really just comes down to speed, and as we get more operating scale, I think going faster and serving the more suburban markets is totally reasonable, too. It's all just about the sequencing of it.
I think that's a much better future than the one we live in now, where you have people driving old, gas-powered cars to deliver you food a couple blocks millions of times a day. I think it's good for society that we're moving in this direction.
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