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Self-Guided Delivery Robots Are Getting Wider Deployments

Detroit will be one of three cities to launch autonomous delivery programs using Kiwibots. The small, electric devices will travel on city sidewalks and partner with businesses to explore automated deliveries.

Kiwibot Delivery Robot
The Kiwibot delivery robot.
Image Courtesy of Kiwibot
Delivery robots are taking to streets across multiple cities — a sign autonomous vehicle technology is finding its edge in the area of on-demand e-retail.

In one such example, Kiwibot will launch its small electric wheeled devices in San Jose, Miami, Detroit and Pittsburgh, Pa., in pilot projects that put the bots in partnership with businesses and the cities to learn how they can be integrated into the larger transportation and commercial sectors.

In Detroit, the city has several goals for the project, but namely, it wants to understand “what a real-world deployment looks like, and try to develop some use cases around how AV technology can be used,” said Samuel Krassenstein, Detroit's deputy director for mobility innovation.

The city also wants to understand operational issues like navigating around obstacles, and develop insights related to community engagement and perception of AVs “to make sure that the community feels comfortable with the technology that’s going in, and they feel that the technology is coming to support them, and not just say, happening around them,” Krassenstein added.

The Kiwibot deployment in Detroit will largely mirror those in other cites, and is part of a partnership with the Knight Foundation. Other partners working closely with the Detroit project include the Office of Future Mobility and Electrification (OFME), a division of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. The Corktown Business Association, which will work to partner the bots with local restaurants and retailers, will also be involved. Corktown is a historic neighborhood near downtown Detroit, relatively densely populated with single and multi-unit housing.

“We really see the Corktown neighborhood as kind of like the ground zero for where a lot of these ... test deployments of new technologies are being deployed,” said Krassenstein.

The autonomous delivery devices are about the size of a wheelbarrow and will travel along sidewalks. They are not unlike the Nuro delivery devices, which have been launched in cities like Houston. In that case, the bots operate in vehicle travel lanes. Less than half of Houston streets have sidewalks.

“I don’t think it’s any secret, we don’t have a lot of sidewalks. It’s a challenge. I think we’re adding a lot of bike lanes in many of our cities,” remarked Darran Anderson, director of strategy and innovation with the Texas Department of Transportation, speaking about the project in July during the Transportation Research Board Automated Road Transportation Symposium.

The flat terrain and permissive regulatory environment is largely what drew Nuro, a California-based company, to the Texas city, said Katie Stevens, head of state and local policy at Nuro.

“We’re obviously, on the tech side, learning a ton,” Stevens remarked about the Houston deployment, speaking at the TRB symposium. “About navigating and testing environments like Houston, that are unique to a lot of cities.”

Walmart recently announced a partnership with Ford Motor Co. and Argo AI to launch autonomous delivery services in Miami; Austin, Texas; and Washington, D.C. That project will use full-size vehicles.

Back in Michigan, the Kiwi program will operate a “handful of these bots” in Detroit, and will report out to the city on topics like public acceptance and operational obstacles.

“And from a regulatory landscape, what do we have to do to set up our environment in the best way possible to support these kind of deployments — not just for deliveries, but potentially for other AV applications,” said Krassenstein, signaling an AV’s future as a part of the transportation ecosystem.

“We have an opportunity and a responsibility to leverage our vast mobility ecosystem to spur innovative solutions to the challenges presented by the spread of the pandemic and help our community feel safe during this time of need,” said Trevor Pawl, chief mobility officer for Michigan, in a statement.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.