The word “California” never fails to conjure up a mental image, though that will vary from person to person – some will think sun and sand, others will think movie stars, while still others will think internet startups.
And as of last week, the list got a bit longer, as California made a few great leaps toward becoming the autonomous delivery capital of the country, with two big pilots by brand-name firms scheduled for the cities and suburbs. And while the big names tend to attract all the headlines, the Golden State is also home to all kinds of smaller startups incubating big autonomous delivery dreams.
Winners are still being sorted, but it does seem increasingly clear that the last mile of delivery in many major metros will be all about the bots closing the gaps.
Well, if all of these California test drives go according to plan, anyway.
Postmates Takes San Francisco
Postmates is on the verge of snagging San Francisco’s first-ever permit for sidewalk robotics operations, per reports. According to the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW), the testing permit gives Postmates 180 days to give its delivery robots free rein on the sidewalks.
Though the DPW has yet to confirm the permit has been issued, the city has been working with Postmates since 2017 to develop a workable framework for sidewalk-based automated delivery. Autonomous delivery startups have been tested in San Francisco using the streets instead of the sidewalk – under the old rubric of “ask for forgiveness and not permission.” Both were denied: In 2018, the San Francisco City Council voted to ban autonomous robotics testing without an official permit issued by the city.
If the Postmates permit is issued as expected, it would be the first of its kind in San Francisco, and one of the first nationwide.
“We’ve been eager to work directly with cities to seek a collaborative and inclusive approach to robotic deployment that respects our public rights of way, includes community input and allows cities to develop thoughtful regulatory regimes,” a representative of Postmates said in a statement.
The robot to be tested is called Serve, which is designed as a “friendly-looking” sidewalk rover that guides itself with a combination of cameras and LIDAR (a sensor technology that uses pulses of laser light to detect distances). Serve can haul up to 50 pounds for up to 25 miles on a single charge. According to Postmates, a human pilot remotely monitors the Serve fleets. The pilot can be reached via a “Help” button, touchscreen and video chat display.
When the bot was introduced in December of 2018, Postmates said it would begin cruising sidewalk in 2019, though no official start date has been announced.
Postmates has reportedly made several updates to Serve in the last several months under the supervision of Ken Kocienda, an Apple veteran that joined Postmates. According to Kocienda, the team’s main focus has been building a bot that is “socially intelligent” and makes people smile when they see it rolling down the street.
And it seems they will soon have a chance to take their shot at delighting San Franciscans with Serve’s presence. Though no permit has been officially issued, some reports indicate that Postmates has been conditionally approved.
While Postmates is nearing its first big test of its autonomous unit, Amazon is getting ready to get its second one into the field – albeit in a slightly more suburban locale.
Amazon Sends out the Scout Bot
Amazon’s Scout isn’t new to field testing – the little autonomous delivery bot got its first road test in January of this year in a residential neighborhood in Snohomish County, Washington. The six-wheeled bot is about the size of a cooler and designed to roll along pre-programmed routes and respond to obstacles along the way.
“We developed Amazon Scout at our research and development lab in Seattle, ensuring the devices can safely and efficiently navigate around pets, pedestrians and anything else in its path,” the company said in a release around the time of its launch.
And this week, Scout is heading to new ground, taking its first cruise outside of its home state in Southern California’s Irvine area. According to a blog post, Amazon is excited about the expansion and the chance for Scout to make a host of new “friends.”
“Over the last few months, Amazon Scout has delivered thousands of smiles to customers just outside of Amazon’s headquarters in Washington state. All the while, the devices have safely and autonomously navigated the many obstacles you find in residential neighborhoods – trash cans, skateboards, lawn chairs, the occasional snow blower and more,” the company said. “Scout has even made a handful of furry neighborhood friends, like Winter the cat and the excitable Irish terrier Mickey.”
As was the case with the previous pilot, Scouts will be deployed along with their human handlers in groups of six, Monday through Friday, during daylight hours. There is not a way for consumers to choose a Scout bot – the Scout chooses them, via Amazon’s random selection process. But Amazon did note in the blog post that they are excited to see how a new set of customers react to Scout.
“In the span of a week, our Ambassadors witnessed a child ask her dad for a Scout for Christmas, and another customer ask if he could hitch his two dachshunds to Scout and use it as a dog walker,” the company said. “While the intent of our ‘adora-bots’ is and will remain delivery, we couldn’t help but chuckle at these reactions.”
The “Amazon Scout Ambassadors,” who act as the bots’ human entourage, will gather data on consumers’ reactions and answer questions from bystanders. The hope, according to Amazon, is to make them a regular part of the eCommerce experience as time and testing goes on.
“The future is right around the corner, and we couldn’t be more excited,” Amazon noted.
But then, they aren’t the only ones.
The California Bot-Building Race
While two big stories attached to two big names hit the wires this week, it has actually been a rather active year for California-based startups moving to get autonomous vehicles on the road and making deliveries.
Autonomous vehicle startup Gatik came out of stealth in a big, splashy way earlier this summer after spending 18 months quietly testing its vehicles on California roads. Those tests were compelling enough for Gatik to announce an autonomous delivery pilot with Walmart earlier this summer, along with a $4.5 million seed round.
And then there is Oakland-based Boxbot, founded by ex-Uber and Tesla engineers and backed by Toyota AI Ventures. Boxbot combines two levels of automation in its design. The fully automated package-loading hubs can load packages nearly continuously throughout the day. The fleet of vehicles includes both simple package delivery trucks along with some trucks that are designed to drive delivery agents around (for transactions that require things like a signature).
“Boxbot is a new type of delivery company, focused completely on last-mile delivery,” said Austin Oehlerking, Boxbot’s co-founder and CEO.
They are not alone in their focus – though perhaps unique in their specialization.
The bots of 2019 are still a work in progress, as evidenced by the amount of human interaction they require. But the bots are coming – now to California, and soon beyond – and will likely get more autonomous with time.
The question that remains is who will bring them – and where they will go when they get tired of the California sun.