Robots with sea changes in tow
Photo by Joe Veen
With Lyfts on demand, tweeting food trucks and restaurants offering discounts when you’re within a given distance, you wouldn’t be crazy to think the future is already here, but cities are about to undergo the biggest sea change since the Model T started rolling off the line 110 years ago.
We’re all guinea pigs as restaurants, retailers and regulators figure out what to do when there are drones in the sky, cargo robots following us down the sidewalk and more autonomous cars than people in already-crowded downtowns.
Third-party delivery of almost everything, along with massive shifts in how people and goods move, means cities of the future will look, feel and function much differently than they do now—and it’s coming fast enough that companies need to start future-proofing themselves today.
Delivery robots at work on U.S. city streets.
Paradise or dystopia
Nothing is certain and there are countless details to suss out as new technologies drop. Even so, it’s easy to think of the future as nothing but solutions to the problems that plague us today. Too hungover for brunch? No problem! Punch in an order on your phone, and everything from Advil to avocado toast will be on its way.
Sick of traffic? No worries, as autonomous cars are promising you no more traffic jams. It sounds awfully nice, but that’s probably not how this space odyssey will play out.
Even if people don’t own their own cars as futurists predict, driverless taxis will need to be plentiful enough to handle rush hour. There will be scads of them. If everyone from UPS to Amazon begins using sidewalks to ship cargo—or we all buy cute robots to schlep our detritus around for us—that’s a lot of new traffic in once-placid public spaces. And how noisy will cities be when there are hundreds or thousands of drones hovering overhead?
To determine whether our future will be paradise or dystopia, I spoke with DoorDash COO Christopher Payne and David King, assistant professor of urban planning at Arizona State University. Both became very fired up when asked to predict the future.
Payne immediately underscored that we haven’t seen anything yet, stressing that we are at “day one” in terms of the changes as technology rushes to meet fast rising consumer expectations.
“The on-demand economy is just getting going in terms of people wanting to get what they want, where they want it, when they want it and it’s very powerful,” he said, failing to mention he just helped secure $535 million in funding from investors who are buying into the company narrative.
Based in San Francisco, Payne already sees the future unfolding by comparing the brand’s smaller markets to the bleeding-edge ecosystem of Silicon Valley.
“In Tucson, I bet if you interviewed a couple of restaurant operators they would say this delivery thing is kinda cool, it’s 2 to 3 percent of my sales already and I’m really excited about it,” he said. “Then come with me to Silicon Valley or Stanford, go down University Avenue and you’ll see what the world looks like four years into the future—some of those restaurants are doing 30, 40 or 50 percent of their sales through delivery.”
Piaggio’s Gita is a personal robot (and friend?) that literally follows in your footsteps.
Sidewalk delivery robots are already a thing in his hometown, and DoorDash has seen its local restaurant operators completely flipping their in-store layout and flow to account for the massive amount of delivery orders heading out the door. In an effort to cut down on street and sidewalk congestion, the company has started using robots to bring delivery meals from the kitchen out to waiting Dashers in back parking lots.
Looking ahead, he doesn’t ever see a world where people don’t want the dining-in ambiance and experience, but said delivery is changing the game faster than many restaurant clients expected. A self-proclaimed technologist, he’s particularly anxious to start sending drones across San Francisco Bay, which will expand the company’s reach since car trips over the water can take 45 minutes or more at peak times.
With years of research under his belt, Payne said DoorDash only sees delivery options of all kinds increasing in breadth and frequency as customers get accustomed to getting whatever they want on command.
“It has broad implications to society and to restaurants in particular,” he said. “I’m thrilled.” Of course $535 million tends to have that effect.
Autonomous taxis are already shuttling riders in Tempe, Arizona, where ASU urban planner David King has recently been studying how goods will move in commercial areas of the future. Looking at everything from congestion to dwelling time, parking lot traffic to delivery frequency, he’s trying to get a sense of how city streets, industrial parks, coffee shops and retail stores function, all the way down to the common man or woman walking down the sidewalk.
“Right now I’m not going to take a taxi or Uber to Circle K to buy a bag of chips,” he said. “Automation is going to drive down the cost of these transactional deliveries tremendously, so we’re going to start delivering all kinds of things to our homes that typically we’re not.”
As a fun exercise, think of how many vehicles are in motion for you right now. If you’re a typical Amazonian, you probably have a gift on the way and a shipment of groceries or some home goods in addition to all the junk mail out there—all in addition to your own set of wheels. What would that total vehicle count be if there were no order minimums or shipping fees of any kind? Multiply that by 323 million Americans and picture the chaos.
Robots are motoring to a city near you.
King reminded me that vehicle types are also going to change—some in the sky, some on the street, and possibly countless others joining us mortals on the sidewalk. His comment brought to mind the autonomous produce market, dubbed Robomart, that was displayed at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show that I can’t stop thinking about. It’s equal parts brilliant invention and planet killer.
“Suddenly we’re introducing vehicles to places where cars currently aren’t,” he said. “If you think communities complain bitterly about traffic now, wait until traffic is a bunch of small robots all over the place—it really has the potential to be devastating for pleasant urban environments.”
As a former restaurant owner, he brought his head out of the clouds to some reality for business owners trying to make sense of simultaneous changes. No matter what, he said, the rise of shared rides and driverless cars will mean parking is going to be less important for businesses—so think twice before repaving or adding new spaces.
In his academic and in-person research, King said business owners in urban areas tend to overestimate the number of drivers coming to their business, while underestimating those who are walking, biking, taking transit or using ride-hailing services. That advice uncoincidentally dovetails with the long-standing goals of urban planning and placemaking: taking urban spaces away from cars and giving them back to people.
He found a particularly sharp, roundabout way of saying that the one constant in a changing world will be human chaos, specifically the difficulty in predicting what works, what doesn’t, and the infinite unforeseen factors that will change our cities.
“People are always going to be very problematic,” he said. “Even though people are ostensibly the fun part of everything.”
Tom Kaiser, pictured on opposite page in a top hat, is usually hunting for urban tales in franchising, but recently served as a greeter for a charity event in Minneapolis. Send story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org