AUSTIN, Texas — New semi-autonomous robots are taking over some streets of Austin to make food deliveries as the Capital City deals with rapid growth and congestion.
Refraction AI, a Michigan-based company, recently expanded in Austin, bringing 10 delivery machines to South Congress, Travis Heights and some parts of Downtown Austin.
“You don't need a 4,000-pound vehicle that has a lot of carbon emissions to bring you a pizza or a cheeseburger or something bigger,” said Luke Schneider, CEO of Refraction AI.
How do these robots work?
The company’s REV-1, a low-weight and low-power machine, uses cameras, lidar, radar and ultrasound sensors to move around, similar to the technology used in autonomous vehicles. The robot travels up to 15 mph.
“It's cleaner,” Schneider said. “It helps us design our cities so that they're more walkable. It allows traffic to flow more freely. And in in in general, it's just a more efficient solution.”
Customers order food just like normal. If a restaurant is using the robots for delivery, it can send the coordinates to the robot and summon it for a pick-up. The robot plots a route and drives to pick up the food before it’s loaded up by staff and sent to the customer’s delivery location, Schneider said.
A remote operator monitors the robot during the trip behind the scenes. During the initial phase while the robots learn the city, a human on an electric scooter follows behind it on the trip.
“In any new community where we arrive, it's always about safety first. And so we want to be sure that we've got really good control of them,” Schneider said. “They also are there primarily to observe robots as they interact both with restaurant personnel and consumers because it's something new. And you know that human to machine interface is something that over time takes refinement and development.”
Refraction AI put robots on the streets of Ann Arbor, Michigan, in December 2019. Several restaurants are using the machines for food delivery there. Schneider called Austin an ideal place for expansion.
Will food-delivery robots help Austin's traffic?
“As you look across Austin in the broader sense, it is just growing very quickly. It has a real need to manage traffic,” he said.
Data from the Austin Transportation Department indicates there were more than 1.8 million weekday trips on city roads before the pandemic hit, when traffic was at its peak.
The robot delivery fits into Austin’s Strategic Mobility Plan, which calls for a 50/50 mode share by 2039 – meaning 50% of trips are people driving alone, while the other 50% of trips are all other modes combined – like transit or biking, said Jacob Culberson, mobility services division manager for ATD.
“We're really trying to move away from traditional motor vehicles, especially single-occupancy vehicles, to greener alternatives. And this is definitely one of those alternatives that could replace a lot of car trips,” Culberson said.
A 2017 measure approved by the Austin City Council allowed personal delivery robot projects on sidewalks in the Capital City. Two years later, Texas lawmakers passed SB 969, which gave companies like Refraction AI the green light for expanded operations in the Lone Star State.
That’s why robots are able to now drive in vehicle or bike lanes – one issue that’s drawing concern from Austin’s bike community.
Austin's bike community pushing back against delivery robots
“We really don’t have nearly as much bike infrastructure on our streets today as we need,” said Chris Riley, board president for Bike Austin. “There are legitimate concerns about whether there will still be adequate room for four people biking or scootering or making other uses of those bike lanes.”
Still, Riley said the smaller robots are a better option than large trucks blocking bike lanes while making a delivery in an urban downtown environment.
The issue came up for discussion Tuesday at the City’s Bicycle Advisory Council meeting, where one person raised the issue that while a fleet of 10 robots may have minimal impact, a bigger fleet could bring more issues for cyclists to get around in the city.
As Refraction AI or similar companies decide to expand in Austin, the City could implement new policies or procedures to regulate operations.
The company already has its sights set on more growth in Austin, and not just in neighborhoods.
“The second piece is actually expanding into other categories of delivery. Whereas in South Congress we focus heavily on food and meal delivery going forward, grocery delivery, retail item delivery, pharmacies and the like factor more prominently into the plan,” Schneider said.
Southside Flying Pizza was the first local restaurant to use the robots for delivery, but in August, the company told KVUE that Tacoly Moly, Chivata, Vspot, Two Hands and Toss Pizzeria are now delivering food using the robots as well. More restaurants, grocery and retail partners are expected to come online soon.
ATD urges anyone who encounters an incident with the robots or has questions about them to contact Austin 311.
PEOPLE ARE ALSO READING: