Cute little robots are already making food deliveries in a handful of European cities. Now those same machines, built by Starship Technologies, are about to start rolling in the US as well. Starship said today that it is partnering with San Francisco-based delivery startups DoorDash and Postmates to facilitate food orders in Redwood City, California, and Washington, DC.
When one of Starship’s robots is assigned to an order, it heads to the restaurant first—on the sidewalk, at about the speed of a pedestrian. (The robots are nearly 100% autonomous, but during testing will be accompanied by a human chaperone.) The restaurant gets a text notification when the bot is outside; the appropriate order can then be placed inside a small carrying compartment.
From there, the robot heads to its drop-off destination. When it arrives, the customer is also texted to come outside—unlike human couriers, these bots don’t do stairs—and given instructions for opening the carrying compartment. The customer takes their food, and the robot (and its minder) head off to tackle the next order. The bots are operating during the daytime and with limited nighttime trips. Off-duty, they’re housed in Starship facilities and will eventually live in “automated hubs” around cities, a Starship spokesperson said.
In partnership with DoorDash, the Redwood City experiment will involve a “single-digit number” of robots, says DoorDash spokesman Eitan Bencuya. For now, the company plans to assign the bots to smaller deliveries with shorter routes.
That’s partly due to practical limitations: The bots deliver within a two- to three-mile radius and are big enough to hold a couple of takeout containers, but not, say, an entire pizza. They won’t carry alcohol, either. “We have a setting for dashers that are not 21, and so we just marked the robots as not 21,” Bencuya says.
DoorDash is also betting that putting the bots on lighter deliveries might be the best complement to its human workforce. “We have people who drive, use bicycles, scooters, even motorcycles in some cities,” Bencuya said. ”Bikers can go through traffic easier but they can’t carry four pizzas. Cars are better for large catering orders. These robots are good for the short small orders that lots of dashers avoid, because they make more money on bigger deliveries.”
The company is also interested in using the bots to experiment with new delivery formats, such as a hub-and-spoke model, in which Starship’s bots would bring food from restaurants to a central location to be divvied up and delivered.
In DC, the robots will facilitate similar deliveries for Postmates. The company did not return a request for comment.
London- and Estonia-based Starship, run by the founders of Skype, last week announced $17.2 million in seed funding—led by Daimler AG—for its fleet of robots, which have so far covered over 16,000 miles in 59 cities across 16 countries. In Europe, the bots are already making deliveries for food-ordering services Just Eat, and carrying packages for courier service Hermes and supermarket Metro Group. In central London, Starship hopes to bring the costs associated with a single on-demand delivery down to £1 ($1.23) from as much as £12 ($14.74).
Were Starship’s robots able to achieve even a fraction of the savings the company envisions, they would be invaluable to delivery companies. On-demand delivery can be a brutal business, plagued by complex logistics, high worker turnover, and perilously thin margins. Postmates in particular has struggled to make its Uber-for-anything business truly affordable, instead alienating customers with high fees and deceptive pricing. The startup, a hot property in Silicon Valley and valued at around $600 million, lost $47 million before interest and tax in 2015 and was on track to lose another $60 million in 2016, Quartz reported in December. The company no longer expects a profit until 2018.
This story was updated to include additional information from Starship Technologies.
Correction: An earlier version of this story named food delivery startup Pronto as a current Starship partner in Europe. Pronto shut down in September 2016—see again: point about this being a brutal business!—so Starship is no longer partnered with them.