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OM in the News: The Grocery Robot is Here

January 7, 2019


A Starship robot on its way to deliver groceries

The first time you encounter a fully self-driving commercial vehicle, odds are it will be delivering your groceries rather than ferrying you to your destination. There are a number of reasons things are trending this way, including laws, physics, the nature of existing infrastructure, and the size of the addressable markets. Autonomous delivery could transform all of retail, further accelerating the shift from stores to e-commerce. “With sufficiently inexpensive autonomous delivery services, we might stop going to the grocery store, or at least stop carrying our groceries home,” writes The Wall Street Journal (Jan. 5-6,2019).

In a demo that also took place in December, autonomous delivery company Nuro showed off a robot designed to drive on the street, at a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour. Half the width of a normal car, Nuro’s R1 robot is intended to sacrifice itself in the event of a crash with a cyclist, pedestrian or other vehicle. Making vehicles that don’t go too fast also allows these companies to make use of a regulatory loophole. A federal and state standard for “low-speed vehicles” has long allowed automakers to create vehicles that lack traditional safety features, as long as they move no faster than 25 mph.

Grocery delivery is especially ripe for disruption because at present it’s prohibitively expensive for most consumers. Between 2-4% of the $641 billion worth of groceries purchased every year in the U.S. are bought online. In 2017, Daimler invested in Starship, which makes a robot about the dimensions of a medium-size dog. The company’s robots are already making deliveries of both food and packages in the outskirts of London.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why might delivery robots proliferate more quickly than driverless cars?
  2. What are some  of the disadvantages of autonomous delivery?
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