Quarantine drives interest in autonomous delivery, but it’s still miles from mainstream

The prospect of truly zero contact delivery seems closer — and more important — than ever with the pandemic changing how we think of last mile logistics. Autonomous delivery executives from FedEx, Postmates, and Refraction AI joined us to talk about the emerging field at TechCrunch Mobility 2020.

FedEx VP of Advanced Technology and Innovation Rebecca Yeung explained why the logistics giant felt that it was time to double down on its experiments in the area of autonomy.

“COVID brought the term ‘contactless’ — before that not many people are talking about contactless; Now it’s almost a preferred way of us delivering,” she said. “So we see, from government to consumers, open mindedness about, maybe in the future you would have everything delivered to you through autonomous means, and that’s the preferred way.”

“If you looked up Postmates robots on Twitter or Instagram, people are always kind of questioning, what is this? What is it doing? Everything changed overnight with COVID, where people would see the robot and immediately understand, oh, this is for contactless delivery,” said Postmates VP of special projects Ali Kashani. “Everything suddenly made sense.”

He also explained how the seeming constraints of a robotic platform specific to food delivery made the engineering process, if not easier, at least naturally bounded by the data they’d collected.

“It’s kind of one of the advantages of being so close to the market, we can use data from our platform to drive certain decisions, because you don’t want to over-engineer you also don’t want to under-engineer,” Kashani said. “We actually developed simulations that would put robots in any location in the country on some date in the past. It would tell us, how many deliveries did this robot do? How many hours was it outside? How many miles did it travel? And it would use that information to decide exactly what kind of battery life do we need? Does it need to carry drinks? How many drink holders should it have to cover 99% of deliveries?”

Matthew Johnson-Roberson, co-founder and CTO of Refraction AI, noted that the pandemic has raised interest and demand, but also highlighted where things need to move forward in different ways.

“Obviously no one wants a global pandemic, but it has certainly energized this industry and put more attention on it,” he said. “Everybody is excited, oh, we’re going to have contactless delivery, it’s going to be great. But I think there are some real challenges that need to be addressed as an industry to get there. One of them is social acceptance, the other’s regulation. That’s starting to change because of COVID. I’m hopeful that this is an inflection point, and that we really do see more serious investment in this, but also widespread deployment, so it’s not a tech demo that you get to see once in one place, but it actually begins to take over some sizable bit of the market.”

Yeung also emphasized the need for the infrastructure that supports these autonomous platforms: “Thinking about the future, commercial launch, you need the dynamic routing, you need the dispatch system, you need the user interface, you need a tracking interface. We see great synergy for us to leverage for all sorts of autonomous applications.”

In discussing the danger of replacing human workers with robots, Yeung and Kashani were sanguine, suggesting like others in the robotics industry that there would be a shift in labor but it won’t kill any jobs. Johnson-Roberson disagreed.

“I think we are going to be replacing jobs, and we need to face that head on,” he said. “I think it’s important that we reckon with that, that a lot of these decisions, they have a long history of not thinking through what hte human consequences will be. So I’m an advocate for saying, look, we’re replacing jobs. Let’s think as a society: How do we address that? How do we deal with it? I think that we could live in a future with more just, fairer jobs with health insurance, more benefits. But I don’t think it is going to look how it looks today.”