Uber is reportedly working to fast track food delivery by drone. Think: Burritos, burgers or boxes of baked beans zipping about overhead. Free of the congested city streets and sidewalks, these drones could get us our food in as quickly as five minutes, according to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.
That sounds great!
Or does it?
Upon reading the news about Uber’s amped up drone ambitions yesterday, my first thought was — why? Other than speed, drones seem to be a bad way to shrink the last mile. Even if Uber could clear all the regulatory hurdles (which haven’t even been created yet) drone delivery just seems… dangerous. Drones could fall or drop their packages on on people or property below. They can’t work that well in inclement weather. They are loud (but getting quieter). They need places to land. They could get attacked by owls (don’t laugh, it happened to mine!).
But Khosrowshahi isn’t dumb. Certainly these thoughts have occurred to him and his team. Uber could be pumping up the idea of drone delivery for a number of reasons:
- The company is looking to IPO next year, so having a shiny new drone program could help sweeten the story around its public offering.
- Amazon and Alphabet are working on their own drone package delivery programs, and it’s better to compete than concede for a company that is all about last mile logistics.
- The company really believes that drones are where the puck will be, to borrow a phrase, and legitimately wants to push the technology forward.
It’s probably a mix of all three and ultimately, drones will undoubtedly become part of the mix for any delivery company.
But while it’s looking so far into a yet-to-be-regulated, murky future, I kinda wish Uber would focus more on the near future for delivery — robots. I’m not talking about self-driving cars, research into which the company suspended after a deadly accident. I’m referring to the squat, autonomous vehicles like those from Marble, Starship and Kiwi that are rolling out on sidewalks in various urban and campus locations across the country.
Uber has undoubtedly looked at delivery robots, but it doesn’t appear to have launched any partnerships or initiatives around the technology. Which is kind of curious.
Unlike drones, if robots malfunction mid-trip, they won’t fall from the sky. There’s a chance they could bump into people or things, but they won’t be traveling as fast. Robots can also easily approach existing doors of any house or apartment building and can deliver more and heavier items.
True, robots will take up sidewalk space, and as more of them go into service, they will force us to re-think our relationship to our walkways. And that re-thinking is going to be guided by local governments, who are still figuring out the rules of the road. But the rules of the road will be much easier for cities to legislate than the rules of the sky because cities already have experience with pedestrian and vehicular traffic.
Rather than devoting too much time to drones, I’d love to see Uber do something like acquire a smaller robotics company like Kiwi. Kiwi actually has a few things going for it. First, it’s already got working robot delivery vehicles already scurrying around Berkeley, CA. It hasn’t raised that much money (just $2M according to Crunchbase), so it wouldn’t be that expensive. And if we stretch this thought experiment to its logical (logistical?) limits, there is some synergies between Uber and Kiwi as Kiwi uses bikes (well, trikes) to shuttle robots around and Uber owns Jump bicycles.
Delivery robots would give the company an autonomous fleet of vehicles that could make deliveries around the clock (eventually), and could even open the door for delivery of groceries and other types of packages beyond food.
One way or another, Uber is bringing you that burrito, whether it’s by land, by sea or by air.