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Uber Eats Takes Its Robot Delivery Show on the Road

As on-demand delivery aggregators look to automation to reduce labor costs, Uber sees the opportunity to roll out autonomous sidewalk robots in dense cities worldwide — but only for certain kinds of orders.

In an interview with PYMNTS, Noah Zych, Uber’s global head of autonomous mobility and delivery, spoke to the company’s recent partnership with Mitsubishi Electric and Cartken, announced via email on Tuesday (Feb. 20), to launch robotic deliveries in Tokyo by the end of next month. The move marks Uber’s first foray into autonomous delivery outside the United States.

“We have a really strong business with Uber Eats there in Japan. It’s a good, high-density area that we think will be well-suited for finding the right deliveries to be done by the robots,” Zych said. “…One of the things that we’ve definitely learned here in the U.S. is there are some trips that are really well-suited for robots and some trips that are still better suited to be done by our couriers.”

Zych added that a key consideration is proximity, with autonomous delivery demanding short distances for the food to arrive hot, fresh and on time. Additionally, he noted that the technology works better for orders with smaller baskets.

Also key to the international expansion’s success is the aggregator’s ability to understand and meet the needs of the area’s consumers. Zych explained that, by partnering with Mitsubishi, Uber has access to “a lot of great local knowledge.”

The Cuteness Factor

Zych asserted that consumers have quickly embraced the presence of robots in the delivery ecosystem, often personifying them and sharing their interactions on social media platforms.

“We’ve seen a lot of different, fun social media videos of people having the surprise and delight of a robot and talking to it and treating it like a person,” Zych said.

Yet consumer sentiments may be mixed. PYMNTS’ exclusive report, “Connected Dining: The Robot Will Take Your Order Now,” which draws from a survey of nearly 2,000 U.S. consumers, finds that 71% of those surveyed reported being uninterested in robotics or automated systems delivering food. Sixty-five percent of these consumers who are not interested in robot delivery reported having concerns about reliability and order accuracy.

Still, Uber sees demand for the technology and use cases suited to the constraints of the model — shorter distances and smaller orders.

“People are generally pretty excited about getting their food delivered by a robot,” Zych said. “… The thing our eaters care the most about, while having that fun experience of interacting with a robot, is still that their food comes quickly, and it comes in good condition.” 

The At-Home Consumer

Certainly, the demand for quick, financially viable delivery options is there, with consumers all over the globe seeking at-home convenience.

For instance, PYMNTS Intelligence’s new study “2024 Global Digital Shopping Index: The Rise of the Click-and-Mortar™ Shopper and What It Means for Merchants,” commissioned by Visa Acceptance Solutions, which draws from a survey of nearly 14,000 consumers across seven countries, finds that 29% are remote shoppers, using online channels exclusively. This share marks a decrease from the 34% that said the same at the peak of digital engagement in 2020.

For on-demand occasions, the cost can be a barrier, given the courier labor involved. However, as the technology becomes more widely available, robotics could influence the economics for all parties — the merchant, the consumer and the aggregator.

“We’re excited about … the opportunities of the future. Being able to successfully meet low delivery times, have affordable delivery for people, and also have a sustainable delivery solution,” Zych said

Going Global

Looking ahead, Zych envisions a future where autonomous delivery complements existing courier services, expanding the overall market for delivery. Rather than a sudden transition, Uber anticipates a gradual integration of autonomous robots into its platform, alongside human couriers, to offer a diverse range of delivery options tailored to different needs and preferences.

In the year ahead, Zych expressed optimism about further expansion into new markets, building upon the success of Tokyo’s launch. Uber aims to continue its global expansion, leveraging its platform’s reach and capabilities to introduce autonomous delivery services to more regions.

Key to the success of these efforts will be applying the technology to those correct use cases — ones with short enough distances and small enough orders, ones where the consumer knows they will have to get up and go retrieve the food from the robot, rather than have the food deposited at their door.  

“One of the things that we’ve invested in from the Uber side is really building this integration — not just [doing] a demo that shows a robot could deliver your food, but think[ing] about what are the building blocks that we have to put in place to do the right matching, do the right order filtering, to have it be a good experience for our consumers.”