What Would Delivery Robots Mean for Public Space?

If companies like Startship and Marble get their way, sidewalks will play host to hundreds of rolling delivery bots. It's one solution to "last-mile" logistics, but are pedestrians prepared to give way?1
A robot delivering food for online ordering service Just Eat, on the street in Greenwich, London.
A robot delivering food for online ordering service Just Eat, on the street in Greenwich, London. © Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

Sharing a sidewalk with one of DoorDash’s delivery robots is a bit like getting stuck behind someone playing Pokémon Go on his smartphone. The robot moves a little bit slower than you want to; every few meters it pauses, jerking to the left or right, perhaps turning around, then turning again before continuing on its way.

These are the sidewalks of the future, technology evangelists promise. Autonomous delivery robots, once the exclusive purview of 1980s sci-fi movies, are coming to a city near you, with promises of reduced labor costs, increased efficiency and the reduction of cars.

But as robot fleets proliferate – Starship robots perform food deliveries for DoorDash and Postmates in Redwood City, California, and Washington DC, while Marble robots will begin making deliveries for Yelp Eat24 in San Francisco on Wednesday – the question none of these companies seems to want to answer is this: are these the sidewalks that we actually want? 

Sidewalk-traversing robots are one of several possible solutions to the pesky problem of “last-mile” logistics. Venture capitalists have poured millions into startups employing an army of independent contractors to provide instant gratification to urbanites. But the humans in this equation remain a significant cost, and innovators are looking to obviate them with automated solutions. 

AmazonUPS and Google are all working on an airborne method, which certainly makes for splashy PR stunts. But in cities, ground-based delivery services are a more practical solution. 

Drones simply don’t make sense for urban environments, said Matt Delaney, one of Marble’s three co-founders who called robots “the only sane solution”. He argued that delivery robots could improve quality of life for people like his grandfather, who lost his driver’s license and has to hire someone for tasks like picking up prescriptions at the pharmacy.


Delivery robots are also creating a new category of jobs because neither company’s model is fully autonomous – yet. Both Starship and Marble employ chaperones who walk behind the robots, answering questions from the public and intervening if disaster strikes. The robots also have remote operators who can take control if necessary.

If pedestrians do want a say in the future of sidewalks, they will have to act quickly. Starship has successfully worked with legislators in Redwood City, Washington DCVirginia and Idaho to pass legislation that suits its requirements. (The company helpfully provided Redwood City with a copy of the language it got approved in DC, according to the city’s economic development manager, Catherine Ralston.)

But it will likely take longer for city dwellers to notice the impact of delivery robots on their day to day lives, said Ehrenfeucht, who said that regulation will likely only come after widespread adoption, as it did with other disruptive technologies such as Uber and Airbnb. That comparison carries a warning.

“Once we give up space,” Ehrenfeucht said, “it’s hard to get it back.”