A sad headline flashed across the phone right before a luncheon talk called The Autonomous Solution—a pedestrian was killed in Tucson, Arizona, by an autonomous vehicle, in what appears to be the first such death involving a driverless car.
For the Postmates executive giving the talk at the Food on Demand Conference, it was a grim moment, for the tragedy itself, of course, and also for the chilling effect such incidents may have on research and development of these new technologies.
“There could be a negative, kneejerk reaction where states clamp down” on experimentation, said Vikrum Aiyer, head of global public policy for Postmates, the app-based delivery service. ”If we as a country don’t keep pace with the rate of R&D, other countries are going to outpace us.”
Later, the talk turned to lighter topics in a world where consumers can get anything they want, whenever they want it, sometimes with the help of a few robotic friends. “If I can just roll out of bed, extend my hand out the window and have that taco drop in my hand, I’m all for it,” Aiyer said with a laugh, responding to a question from Food on Demand’s Nicholas Upton. “That’s the dream,” replied Upton.
In reality, though, aerial delivery via drones is a ways off, mostly because of the glacial pace of Federal Aviation Administration and other federal regulators. But robots that can deliver your favorite burrito or any other product are already on the streets in some locations, and Postmates has a partnership with Starship to test the idea.
Postmates already has a fleet of 150,000 independent contractors—humans—to deliver products to customers, and that model works well for longer trips. But anything “less than a mile and the payout is kind of annoying,” Aiyer noted.
“So we thought one easy way to close that gap was sidewalk robotics. We launched in Washington, D.C., which is a showcase to how progressive they are, because I think the last thing the Secret Service wants is a bunch of coolers on wheels rolling around.”
The test proved successful, with no reports of “cute robots mugging anyone,” as Upton joked, and plenty of comments from people who had fun watching the little guys roll around.
“We had somewhere between 50- to 70,000 miles tested and there has not been any incident by the same standards is defined by any vehicle. We”re lucky to have that. And in many respects it’s because they are fairly small, fairly slow moving,” Aiyer said.
But there were a few haters. “The No. 1 feedback we get is, passersby yelling about robotic delivery, taking over our streets,” he said. It seems even cute little robots have their critics.