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Why Most Delivery Bots Won't Work in Cities

Ryan Citron
Apr 02, 2021

Guidehouse Insights City

Delivery bots have had strong success in campus-style environments. For example, California-based startup Kiwibot has completed more than 100,000 deliveries of food, groceries, and school supplies at the University of California, Berkeley since Kiwibot began operations in 2017. Translating this success to cities, however, is a far more daunting task. Universities, hospitals, corporate campuses, and gated communities have simple, predictable environments compared with complex public roads and dynamic urban corridors. 

Hype Meets Reality

In February 2019, FedEx unveiled Roxo, the FedEx SameDay Bot designed to help retailers make deliveries to nearby customers using an autonomous delivery device. The Roxo bot is still a prototype (in its third generation) and “continues to be tested, developed, and evaluated” according to FedEx. After more than 2 years, FedEx has zero commercial deployments in sight. 

The latest company to try to tackle urban environments with delivery bots is Albertsons Companies, the grocery giant that owns Safeway and Jewel-Osco. The company launched a pilot program in Northern California to test grocery delivery using remote-controlled delivery robots from Silicon Valley startup Tortoise (which is also developing automated e-kick scooter programs). The planned pilot will test deliveries out of two Safeway locations, with the delivery bots traveling up to 3 miles while being remote-controlled by teleoperators.

Challenges Abound 

The challenges associated with delivery bot operation in cities are immense. Firstly, the devices lack dedicated infrastructure for their use—sidewalks are for pedestrians, and bike lanes are for cyclists. On busy city streets, sidewalk bots could create major safety hazards by obstructing and knocking into pedestrians and wheelchair users. It’s highly questionable whether city dwellers will accept sharing sidewalks and bike lanes with robots. 

The problem of theft and vandalism is likely to be even more pronounced. If shared e-kick scooters are any indication, delivery bots could be kicked or pushed over, thrown in a river or off a bridge, set on fire, or stolen for their goods and expensive hardware. (In fact, delivery bots have been known to plunge themselves into rivers.) Even on college campuses, delivery bots have faced challenges related to vandalism, theft, resident opposition, and impeding wheelchair users. Unless cities revise local regulations regarding sidewalk use and dedicate street space for the technology and building owners provide ramps and doors specifically designed for delivery bot use, delivery bots will likely struggle to scale in urban applications. 

A More Realistic City Robot

Several companies are developing a subset of delivery bots referred to as robotic delivery vehicles (RDVs). RDVs are significantly larger than sidewalk bots (giving them greater carrying capacity) and distinct among robots and drones in that supporting infrastructure (public roads) already exists. RDVs are also heavier and faster (25 mph-45 mph) than delivery bots (4 mph-7 mph), making vandalism much less likely. 

One of the key companies pioneering the transition to RDVs is Mountain View, California-based Nuro. The company has raised more than $1 billion in funding and was granted a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards exemption from the US Department of Transportation for its second generation R2 vehicle in February 2020, which allows the company to produce and deploy up to 5,000 vehicles over 2 years. 

Given that Nuro’s vehicles lack mirrors, a steering wheel, pedals, and other traditional features previously required in motor vehicles, the exemption is critical. However, to unleash the full potential of RDVs, broader regulatory work on automated vehicles will be required. Once this is achieved, Guidehouse Insights expects RDVs to have strong long-term applicability to urban use cases, displacing hundreds of thousands or, more likely, millions of deliveries in city centers over the next decade.