Home News Food delivery robots have hit Canadian sidewalks — but there are roadblocks

Food delivery robots have hit Canadian sidewalks — but there are roadblocks

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When customers in downtown Vancouver place their orders at Pizza Hut in September, several pies land on their doorstep with no courier in sight.

Instead, patrons are greeted by Ange, Hugo or Raja – autonomous, cooled robots on four wheels with lights in the shape of eyelids. They walked down the sidewalk to customers, who used unique codes to open their lids and reveal their food.

The value proposition for Serve Robotics — part of Uber’s 2020 acquisition of the food delivery company Postmates that created the trio and a fleet of zero-emission robots — is pretty simple: With fears of a labor crisis and climate change too high. Pounds of burritos in a two-ton car?

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A handful of other robotic delivery companies have a similar philosophy, but their path to ubiquity faces many obstacles.

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Delivery robots have been banned in some major cities such as Toronto, which has argued they pose a danger to people with impaired mobility or vision, as well as the elderly and children. Cyclists already hate e-scooters on bike lanes and don’t want robots either.

“They get a lot of attention from pedestrians when they’re on the sidewalk because they don’t see much and people get excited to see them, but as usage continues to increase, it can cause a lot of congestion on already narrow sidewalks,” said Prabhjot Gill, associate partner at McKinsey & Co., focused on retail.

There are also concerns that autonomous robots or those piloted by overseas employees could take jobs away from carriers.

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Vancouver-born Surf CEO Ali Kashani sees criticism as a natural part of innovation so that the bike, when it was invented, was seen by many as divisive.

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He’s tried to allay fears by making sure his robots (Kashani won’t say how many) ring and flash their lights to alert people around them. It is equipped with automatic collision avoidance, vehicle collision avoidance, and emergency braking.

Ultimately, he believes, they are a “win-win” because they reduce traffic, boost local trade, and help merchants provide food to consumers at a reasonable cost.

The environment also benefits as Serve replaces delivery vehicles. Kashani estimates that nearly half of deliveries in the country cover less than 2.5 miles and that 90% of them are done by car. About 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to people using personal cars for local shopping and errands.

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“There are plenty of reasons to replace our cars with these robots as soon as possible, but we have no reason to make anyone an enemy,” Kashani said.

Knowing how much opposition new ideas might encounter, Cerf makes sure to communicate with governments and authorities before launching them into the city, even if they don’t have legislation allowing or banning bots.

However, David Lipofsky, president of the Ontario Accessibility Law Coalition, said there is no way these robots and humans can coexist because they still pose a tripping hazard and worse, they could be used to transport contraband or explosives.

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He insists that the battle he and others have waged to keep robots off the sidewalk is not an attack on innovation.

“It’s not like we’re denying people their rights,” he said. “We have a pizza delivery method that we’ve had since we had pizza delivery. It’s called Humans.”

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Manish Dhankher, chief customer officer for Pizza Hut Canada, agrees there’s nothing worth the risk in pizza delivery, but says his company only partnered with Surf after the robots completed thousands of trips without injury.

Service bots have been making close deliveries to the Pizza Hut’s 1725 Robson Street location for two weeks, but the pilot got “childish excitement” from customers and achieved a 95% satisfaction rate.

The goal, Dhankhar says, was to modernize pizza deliveries, not cut costs. Couriers were making roughly the same number of deliveries as before robots were used.

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But Pizza Hut isn’t ready to permanently deploy bots.

“We want to know more,” he said. “What happens when you put this in the snowy areas of Saskatchewan and what happens when there is freezing rain?”

Another question: what happens when cities don’t welcome robots?

Tiny Mile, the company behind a series of pink, heart-eyed robots named Geoffrey, knows the answer.

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Years after Jeffrey started delivering in Toronto for delivery services like Foodora, Lepofsky and others have argued that people may be incapacitated by dead or stuck devices or unable to quickly detect their presence.

Toronto City Council voted last December to ban muscle-only devices from sidewalks, bike lanes and driveways until the province implements a pilot project for such devices.

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Jeffrey is later spotted in Ottawa before the city confirms that such robots are not allowed there either, and Canada’s Tiny Mile is completely gone.

“We almost went bankrupt,” said Ignacio Tartafull, CEO of Tiny Mile.

“It was a miracle that we survived.”

To keep Jeffrey alive, Tiny Mile headed to Florida and North Carolina.

“It was love at first sight,” said Tartfall. “We talked to the cities and they were basically competing to make it happen.”

He thinks the love will spread as the cost of delivering robots — now about $1 — drops to 10 cents over the next seven years.

He added, “It will probably be a few years before we catch up with it in the big cities, but in the long run it’s probably because the technology is there, it works and we can deliver it on time and for much less money.” . He said.

As for Serve, it’s focused on Los Angeles for now, but Kashani said its mission is to get 5% of delivery vehicles off the road over the next five years.

“But I certainly hope that if I fast-forward a decade or two, these robots will move more goods locally… so that we don’t depend on cars anymore.”

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This report from The Canadian Press was first published on December 4, 2022.


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