Robots are very good at social distancing

“Until now, a majority of people viewed automation as a ‘scary’ or ‘creepy’ substitute to ‘warm’ human contact. From now on, they will be more welcoming.”

Consumer concerns about autonomous robots may give way to more favorable impressions as demand for human-free delivery grows during the coronavirus outbreak.

Not so long ago, a “techlash” threatened to derail progress on autonomous transportation, with critics advocating corrective actions such as socializing autonomous delivery robots to make the technology more palatable.

Coronavirus has since shifted the conversation, away from socialization and toward social distancing. That’s good news for autonomous delivery companies.

“Robotics startups that allow for ‘no contact delivery’ will be moved forward faster than their previous growth curves,” wrote Reilly Brennan of TrucksVC, a transportation-focused venture firm, in a newsletter detailing coronavirus impacts. He singled out Gatik, a middle-mile delivery company, and Refraction, a last-mile delivery service, as two examples of these teams.

Autonomous delivery companies have long championed the cost savings and environmental efficiencies associated with self-driving delivery services. Now they are adding to their arsenal the human health and safety advantages. 

FreightWaves spoke with several last-mile robotics companies, asking how the coronavirus might impact short and long term prospects for deployment. Here are their responses:

“Our robots provide contactless deliveries,” said a spokesperson for Starship Technologies, a startup that makes delivery robots now deployed on university campuses. Although the outbreak has shuttered many college campuses, he said, Starship robots are still shuttling food to students, faculty and staff who are living on site.

What is more, Starship is now fielding inquiries from grocers, restaurants and other delivery companies that need assistance meeting the surge in demand tied to the pandemic. “We are working as quickly as possible to expand our robot delivery service so we can help more people,” the spokesperson said. 

Vincenzo Russi, CEO of Yape, an Italian company that makes a last-mile robotic delivery system, said governments around the world are already pursuing deployment of delivery drones “to guarantee basic provisions of food and drugs in a safe way.”

Using drones during the coronavirus outbreak can “indeed ensure” social distancing and contactless delivery, Russi said, while at the same time keep up with growing e-commerce and food delivery business trends. 

Looking beyond the emergency, Russi foresees “the trajectory of the technology will face a relevant acceleration,” due to rising demand.

“That is because, on one side, industries and delivery businesses will want to introduce autonomous technology much [further] ahead than previously planned to be prepared for similar kinds of scenarios,” he said.

There will also be “a radical change” in the cultural attitudes of consumers in Western countries, Russi believes. Until now, a majority of people viewed automation as a ‘scary’ or ‘creepy’ substitute to ‘warm’ human contact,” he said.

“From now on, they will likely be more welcoming.”

Self-driving tech company Waymo operates a robotaxi service, as well as autonomous delivery service, both of which have shut down during the pandemic. Asked what the pandemic means for driverless tech, a spokesperson alerted FreightWaves to a comment posted to the company website, stating,

 “Removing the human driver holds great promise for not only for making our roads safer, but for helping our riders stay healthy in these uncertain times.” 

Although this statement focused on the company’s fully driverless ride-hailing service, the spokesperson said “it could hold true for delivery as well.” 

Waymo’s response to the pandemic has shifted over the past week, with the company initially shutting down its ride-hailing service but keeping its delivery and trucking service operational. While the delivery service was still running, Waymo posted the following statement to its website:

“We can carry out driverless, delivery, and trucking services for our riders and partners while respecting the important social distancing and hygiene guidelines shared by the CDC and local authorities.”