Uber is the latest company to experiment with using robots to bring food to people’s homes.
The firm, which has long stated that automation is critical to its long-term profitability, is launching two test programs to serve Uber Eats in Greater Los Angeles this month, including four-wheeled robots that roll on sidewalks for short journeys and self-driving cars for longer excursions.
Beginning Monday, Uber Eats customers will have the option of having their meals delivered by one of the robots rather than a human.
Customers will receive instructions on how to retrieve their food from inside the robot via the Uber app. The Serve robot resembles a colorful cooler on wheels, with a lid that flips open to reveal a delivery inside.
The robot, which will operate in West Hollywood, has headlights that resemble eyes, making it look like something out of a cartoon.
In Santa Monica, California, Hyundai vehicles equipped with Motional’s self-driving technology will handle larger orders.
The collaboration was first announced in December. Motional is one of the most experienced autonomous driving teams.
In 2016, it launched a limited robotaxi service in Singapore under the moniker nuTonomy, and in 2018, it began testing autonomous trips with Lyft in Las Vegas. Hyundai and Aptiv, an automotive technology supplier, jointly own Motional. It plans to partner with Lyft to start a robotaxi service in Las Vegas next year.
Orders received by Hyundai sedan will be stored in a thermal container in the back seat, from which the purchaser will get them. Motional will have a human test driver behind the wheel as a safety precaution.
Serve Robotics, which operates Uber’s sidewalk robots, will rely on a remote human operator to supervise deliveries.
Uber’s robot deliveries will account for “a very, very small number of our deliveries” in the near future, according to Noah Zych, who leads autonomous mobility and delivery at the company.
In the long run, robots may make delivery more inexpensive. Trips that are currently unaffordable to pay for delivery, such as picking up dry cleaning, may become feasible in the future with autonomous deliveries, he said. (Uber originally built self-driving vehicles in-house, but in 2020 it sold its team to Aurora, a self-driving business.) Aurora is still an investor in Uber, and the two companies are collaborating on robotaxis.)
“This is the first chapter of autonomous vehicles doing delivery on Uber,” Zych said. “We see the potential in the future but have to start where we are today.”
In the first three months of the year, its delivery revenue of $2.5 billion matched that of its typical rides operation.