On-demand delivery is something consumers have come to expect. With that in mind, startup Dispatch is building a fleet of autonomous delivery vehicles designed for sidewalks and bike paths. Today, the company announced a $2 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Chris Dixon with participation from Charles Hudson of Precursor Ventures and others.
“The need for convenient low cost delivery is widespread,” Dispatch co-founder Uriah Baalke told me. “Our goal is to fulfill that demand and build a system at scale that can scale and that can operate in all these locales efficiently.”
Dispatch’s first vehicle, nicknamed “Carry,” has four compartments that can carry a total of 100 pounds. The vehicle travels at the pace of pedestrians on sidewalks and bike paths, and is engineered to complete multiple deliveries per trip. Carry is heavy enough that it would take two people to pick it up, meaning that someone won’t be able to easily steal it. Carry is also connected to a 4G network for accurate location tracking.
A few weeks ago, Dispatch launched pilot programs at Menlo College and CSU Monterey Bay to deliver students their mail, packages and other things. Students can track Carry’s location and get notified when it arrives. Once the robot rolls up, students can unlock and access their package using their phone.
Carry has a set of sensors on board and uses artificial intelligence techniques to learn how to act in a way that is safe and comfortable for people. The more it learns, the more equipped it will be to interact with more complex environments. Down the short road, Dispatch will expand into new locales. Ultimately, the plan is to deploy Dispatch vehicles in major cities.
“This is all part of why we raised our round, Baalke said. “We’re really trying to grow our team, hire a team of expert people, grow out the product and expand our fleet.”
Dispatch’s vehicles could be useful to existing on-demand companies, especially the ones that are struggling with the costs of last-mile delivery. The last-mile delivery piece of on-demand operations can be a big cost to existing startups, mostly because the substantial labor needed to deliver products can result in thin margins. Hiring contract workers is one way to reduce the amount of money spent on labor, but questions around the legality of hiring these on-demand workers as contractors rather than full-time employees have been raised in last couple of years. It’s also resulted in a major class-action lawsuit against Uber in California.
With Dispatch, the W-2 employee versus independent contractor conversation wouldn’t need to happen anymore. That said, Dispatch at scale, in addition to the self-driving car technology Lyft, Uber and many others are working on, could put a lot of people relying on the on-demand economy for income out of jobs.
Once Dispatch reaches a certain level of scale, Baalke envisions the platform functioning as more of utility that everyone has access to, and one that everyone expects to exist in the world. A future with Dispatch’s technology as a utility could include peer-to-peer delivery as well as city-sanctioned delivery services.
Dispatch, which is based in South San Francisco, has been testing its product for the last nine months. The company is still very small, with just one full-time employee in addition to Baalke and his two other co-founders, Stav Braun and Sonia Jin.