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Monday, September 20, 2021
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Sidewalk Robots Are On The Way (But Probably Later)

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Automated grocery delivery is a retail technology that suddenly found itself with a more robust use case as the novel coronavirus pandemic made customers prioritize contact-free transactions in the interest of staying healthy.

Albertsons, for example, is working on a sidewalk-ready robot that will bring deliveries to Safeway customers. The way it works, however, differs from some of the other solutions being tested in the space.

Albertsons is testing the automated grocery cart, made in conjunction with logistics company Tortoise, in Northern California, according to Supermarket News. Humans will accompany the cart to ensure it stays on course during the pilot. The device is controlled remotely by a live operator rather than relying on artificial intelligence to get from point A to point B.

“I love this and wonder if now really is the time for this to take off,” wrote Oliver Guy, senior director of industry solutions at Software AG
ASUR
, in an online discussion on RetailWire last week. “The need for contactless delivery is new in the past 12 months so this could be a catalyst for big changes.”

Much of the focus in the driverless delivery space, both as regards full-sized vehicles built for the road and smaller robots built for sidewalks, has been on the use of fully autonomous vehicles rather than remotely controlled ones.

Kroger
KR
, Walmart
WMT
and CVS have, for instance, piloted autonomous grocery and prescription delivery in partnership with startup Nuro, using completely autonomous Prius cars fitted with the tech provider’s self-driving technology. Other enterprises like Amazon.com
AMZN
and FedEx
FDX
have been experimenting with smaller last-mile fulfillment robots for sidewalks. Both Amazon’s Scout and FedEx’s SameDay Bot use a combination of cameras and AI/machine learning to travel and deliver without human intervention or oversight.

“If remote controlled delivery benefits the retailer and provides a frictionless experience for the customer, then I think it will work, but on a much smaller scale than AI-powered autonomous robots,” wrote Karen S. Herman, CEO of Gustie Creative. “To me, the mobile experience for the customer is what will make or break either type of robotic delivery.”

Regardless of whether the driver is live or virtual, some members of the RetailWire BrainTrust were not convinced that delivery bot technology is poised to become a part of daily life quite yet.

“Cool and sexy?” wrote Laura Davis-Taylor, chief strategy officer at InReality. “Sure. Realistic and mission-critical? Not so much. There’s also the issue of theft and vandalism. It just seems like using humans is the better route, plus it keeps people employed. Novel idea, eh?”

“At this point, robots are better suited for behind the scenes efforts; warehouses, loading delivery vans or for commercial deliveries where there is limited conflict with pedestrians, traffic safety and more consistency in delivery patterns,” wrote Raj B. Shroff, principal at PINE Strategy & Design.

Some BrainTrust members pointed to practical concerns with sidewalk bots.

“They would be targets for kids and anyone waiting to ‘see what happens’ when it is stolen from, kicked or lit on fire for the latest TikTok video,” wrote The Retail Doctor Bob Phibbs. “I just don’t see this ever happening other than as PR for VC companies.”

“While this has perhaps solved the last-mile problem, what happens with the last 20 yards?” wrote professor Gene Detroyer. “How is the delivery accepted into the home when there is no one home? That problem must be solved before contactless delivery truly is acceptable.”

Retailers and startups have occasionally run into legislative hurdles in their attempts to bring driverless delivery beyond the pilot stage. For smaller robots, municipalities have shown concern about the vehicles being nuisances or dangers to pedestrians.

Regulations have been managed on a state-by-state and city-by-city basis. Recently Pennsylvania went as far as to declare delivery robots as “pedestrians,” reports Yahoo News. The move brought the state into conflict with the city of Pittsburgh and has come under criticism from accessibility advocates and transportation advocates in cities concerned about delivery robots flooding sidewalks.

“While I’m sure one day we’ll all be saying hello to robot delivery vehicles passing by, I don’t think this will happen any time soon,” wrote Ricardo Belmar, retail transformation thought leader. “For most people, running into a robot delivery vehicle on the sidewalk or approach to a home is likely going to be quite jarring and invite mishaps.”

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