Like a Spinal Tap drummer, one of Kiwi‘s delivery robots caught fire last Friday while out and about on the campus of UC Berkeley. While no human was harmed during the conflagration, this isn’t great news for the nascent startup, which has just started working to expand to other locations.
According to the Daily Californian, at around 2 p.m. on this past Friday, a Kiwi delivery bot caught fire outside the UC Berkeley Martin Luther King Student Union. Of course, video of the incident was posted to social media, like the one below (caution some swearing):
Over the weekend, Kiwi posted an update to its corporate blog, explaining what happened:
We learned that the root cause was human error when replacing the batteries, where a defective battery was put in place of a functioning one. This caused an exceedingly rare occurrence of the battery experiencing thermal runaway.
The company says it has put in custom software to “rigorously monitor the state of each battery.”
While there’s never a good time for a company’s product to catch fire, the events of the past weekend come as delivery robots are just starting to roll out in different markets and at a time when Kiwi is working to extend its service to other campuses. At the end of October, Kiwi started making deliveries in Westwood, CA, home of UCLA. At the time, the company could not make deliveries on campus as it was still sorting out permits. Having your robot burst into flames on a different college campus certainly won’t make getting those permits any easier.
City governments are still figuring out how to deal with and regulate little cooler-sized robots driving themselves around city sidewalks and interacting with pedestrians and traffic. San Francisco placed stringent rules around how commercial robots could be used in the city. Dallas, TX started a six month trial using Marble robots, but they can only be used in select areas.
The Kiwi fire also, unfortunately, comes not that long after California suffered horrible wildfires. While Kiwi operates in urban settings, there could be some residual anxiety over introducing any type of new, still-being-tested-in-the-real-world autonomous vehicle that has a public instance of spontaneously catching fire.
Before we try to bury Kiwi, let’s remember that this isn’t the first time batteries have been a bane to our modern existence. At the start of this year, HP had to recall 50,000 lithium-ion laptop batteries over fire risk.
Robots will play an increasingly important role in how we get our meals, groceries and other goods, and while the Kiwi fire isn’t ideal, the company was quick to respond publicly to the issue and outline the steps it’s taking to remedy the situation.
While it got burned, Kiwi got lucky. This could have been much, much worse for the company. Thankfully no one was injured and no major property was damaged. Hopefully this minor incident will have not just Kiwi, but others like Marble and Starship, revisiting their own robots to make sure it won’t happen again.