Delivery Bots

Robots are basic to manufacturing and printing. Where else will they turn up? That’s still open to discussion. Recent advances have shown possibilities for robots in agriculture, restaurant cooking and serving, warehouses, and healthcare, among other industries. But one of the most promising areas for robots is delivery.

Autonomous vehicles, mostly intended for sidewalk use, are familiar features of campuses and increasingly of cities across the country. People like them, and they can cut costs by replacing human delivery drivers.

Not ready for prime time

There are some real problems, however.

Delivery bots have some real limitations. They can’t step off a curb. They get confused at intersections. One recently buzzed right through crime scene tape.

In a nationwide pilot program, bots did not run into any pedestrians or animals, but they were hit by cars several times, got stuck many times, and tipped over quite a few times. A stuck robot can be a hindrance to pedestrians — but the researchers noted that a lot of the obstacles that got in the way of the delivery bots would also limit accessibility for people in wheelchairs. Improvements in sidewalk width, smoothness, and safety could therefore be good for humans as well as for bots.

The study suggested that delivery bots, while fine for on-campus pizza deliveries, shouldn’t be used for high-stakes deliveries. Bringing children’s books from the library to a child? Great! Delivering an important prescription? Not so great.

On the matter of pizza delivery, one campus editorial suggested that the bots kept students from walking short distances to get food, cut down on human interactions, and didn’t actually improve the quality of life for students.

The good stuff

The cuteness of the delivery bots makes them appealing to a lot of people, but there are real advantages, too. They represent a cost savings, as automation nearly always does. Not only do they save on human workers’ pay, they don’t have to advertise to consumers, which is the second largest expense for a company like Uber Eats.

Since they can work directly with the restaurants or stores instead of being hired by customers, they cost less for the senders of the deliveries.

They can also take the place of cars. A car carrying a pizza a mile or two has a much larger carbon footprint than a delivery bot.

And while some delivery vehicles run autonomously and take the job away from a human driver, others have remote human control. A delivery bot controller can accomplish more deliveries in the same amount of time, without having to drive back and forth to their home between deliveries, to wait for their orders to be packed up, or to drive back and forth between locations. The pay scale can therefore be higher and the working conditions more pleasant.

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