For years we’ve heard that robots were coming for our jobs, that it wouldn’t be long before they were doing everything and sending us to the employment line. And while they’re certainly utilized a lot more now than they used to be, the long-threatened robot uprising hasn’t happened yet.
One area where robots were expected to play a major role relates to shipping. With drones and driverless cars becoming prominent, it was only a matter of time before we started seeing mechanical delivery people at our doors, right? Well, for a little while, this was a reality.
Even if a package has to travel thousands of miles, it’s often the final stretch that’s the most complicated and expensive. This is why in 2019, FedEx collaborated with a company called DEKA to create Roxo, a last-mile delivery robot. FedEx envisioned a “cost-effective and sustainable” delivery solution for getting packages to people, as well as things like groceries, pizza, and auto parts.
The wheeled Roxo weighed 450 pounds and could climb curbs and steps. Using a 360-degree LIDAR sensor and 360-degree long-range cameras, it could navigate autonomously around parked cars and pedestrians. Roxo could carry up to 100 pounds and had a top speed of 10 mph. It didn’t operate entirely on its own, however, as actual people were monitoring its movements and could take over its navigation if necessary. Roxo, which was tested across the U.S., as well as in Japan and the United Arab Emirates, was designed to travel in a radius of about five miles of local distribution centers.
While Roxo looked pretty promising, FedEx will be going back to the drawing board. In early October, they announced they were shutting down their delivery robots program. According to the company’s chief transformation officer, Sriram Krishnasam, “Roxo did not meet necessary near-term value requirements for DRIVE [FedEx’s internal project].” He added: “Although we are ending the research and development efforts, Roxo served a valuable purpose: to rapidly advance our understanding and use of robotic technology.”
What went wrong with Roxo?
So far, FedEx hasn’t been eager to share details about why Roxo failed, citing the desire to focus more on “several nearer-term opportunities.” One clue could come from a letter the company received shortly after Roxo’s launch from lawyers for the New York City Department of Transportation. It was a cease-and-desist letter that said the robots violated many traffic regulations.
“You are hereby directed to immediately cease and desist operating your SameDay Bots on the streets and sidewalks in the City of New York,” the letter read. “Failure to do so may result in the seizure of the property, notices of violation, and/or the commencement of legal action.”
Is the age of robot deliveries over?
The demise of Roxo isn’t just bad news for FedEx; it could be bad news for the entire robot delivery industry. Not long after FedEx said Roxo was no more, Amazon came out with its own ominous announcement regarding its robot delivery program called Scout, also launched in 2019. While it wasn’t being completely scrapped, it would be scaled down.
“During our limited field test for Scout, we worked to create a unique delivery experience, but learned through feedback that there were aspects of the program that weren’t meeting customers’ needs,” Amazon said in a statement. “As a result, we are ending our field tests and reorienting the program. We are working with employees during this transition, matching them to open roles that best fit their experience and skills.”
All hope isn’t entirely lost, however, when it comes to robot deliveries. Uber Eats and Nuro recently formed a partnership in which autonomous vehicles will be used for deliveries. Unlike Roxo, these can drive on streets (but not highways) and have a top speed of 45 mph. So far, only people in two cities – Mountain View, California, and Houston, Texas – will be able to get deliveries from these robotic cars, but that could soon be expanded.
How do you feel about delivery robots? Are you in favor, or would you still like to see an actual person at your door?