Delivery Robots Can Save Jobs and Lives

Why self-driving vehicles and teleoperation are poised to thrive in a post-Covid-19 world

Thomas Smith
OneZero
Published in
9 min readApr 7, 2020

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A photo of a Postmates food delivery robot going down a sidewalk.
A Postmates food delivery robot delivers food. Photo: AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images/Getty Images

InIn the summer of 2018, I was walking near the campus of UC Berkeley when I turned a corner and came face-to-face with an irate robot.

I didn’t know it was a robot at first. It looked like a cheerful microwave oven with big, knobbly tires, sitting smack in the middle of a busy urban sidewalk. It had a tiny blue flag on the end of a whippy little pole, positioned right at eye level — presumably to get the attention of distracted pedestrians like me.

I had clearly disrupted its mission by stepping in front of it, and it wasn’t happy. Friendly digital eyes on its front morphed from a cheerful grin into a frustrated scowl as I stood there gaping and blocking its path. With some annoyed beeps, it turned its wheels, zipped around me in a surprisingly assertive way, and continued on with its day.

I would later learn that the high-strung little blue and yellow box I had encountered was a delivery robot from a startup called Kiwi. At UC Berkeley and other college campuses, Kiwi has been testing its robots as an alternative to human food delivery drivers from companies like Uber Eats and DoorDash.

When a student places a food order, the robots drive to selected restaurants, receive the order (which is stored in a locking compartment on the robot’s body), drive it to the student’s dorm or apartment, confirm their arrival via an app on the student’s phone, and unlock their compartment to complete the delivery.

The robot I encountered was likely trying to bring some hungry student their burrito bowl, and I had momentarily interfered with this crucial mission — thus the angry beeps and digital eye roll. By the time of my encounter in 2018, the company had already delivered 10,000 orders using this process.

Kiwi has created a cool new tech and a clever business model for food delivery, which is becoming more crucial as Covid-19 reshapes the gig economy. And the company has managed to imbue its robots with the intelligence to navigate city streets and deal with irritating meat-space obstacles like myself.

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