The “last mile” of delivery is the hardest. It’s cheap to fly freight across the globe, but the economics of hiring people to deliver parcels all of eight blocks just don’t add up. This problem has led many companies to invest in developing robotic courier tech over the last few years, with Segway, Marble, and other brands all fighting to build a bot that can deliver your pizza.
Most of these robots look like a cross between an R/C car and an office photocopier. But Postmates recently debuted a sidewalk robot, called Serve, that looks decidedly more friendly. Serve, which will debut on the sidewalks of Los Angeles later this year, looks straight out of a Pixar flick, with two wide eyes (that actually “see”), 12-inch wheels that can hop over curbs, a body custom-painted by locals, and a personality that is meant to feel as quirky, lovable, and imperfect as Wall-E himself.
Why take this approach with a robot courier? Because the challenge of automation is about more than just technology; Postmates’ robot will need to cohabitate with strangers on slender sidewalks. (Human-on-robot crime is not unusual these days.) Serve must be something that all people, not just delivery customers, could accept–and even feel empathy toward. And for Postmates, a company now valued at $1.2 billion after raising another $300 million in funding, it’s a matter of getting the future of its business right.
Serve began as a project within Postmates’ own R&D lab–dubbed Postmates X–which teamed up with San Francisco design firm NewDealDesign last June. Postmates X wanted to develop its early delivery prototypes into a real product, but what a delivery robot should look like is hardly a set motif. Some cities have started publicizing firm size and weight constraints to ensure giant self-driving vehicles won’t dominate their sidewalk, but the rest is totally up in the air.
“We had coffee and started talking about robots in the urban landscape,” recalls NewDealDesign founder Gadi Amit, “really coming together that the big difficulty is not technology; it’s the interaction with humans, how to mitigate rejection, and assimilate into the human environment.”
In a six-month sprint, Postmates X and NDD developed Serve from the ground up. It began with an exploration of what Serve should look like–and for that, the team dug deep into historical precedents, developing a series of 10 vastly different-looking delivery robots.
“It’s funny, we took inspiration from a variety of regions, and what kind of carrier devices humanity used in the past–like carts in Africa and the Middle East, or saddle bags” says Amit. “And so some of the prototypes looked more like a Tonka truck. One was even something like a llama.”
They studied the parcels themselves–how large would Serve’s central compartment need to be to deliver an 18-inch pizza or a few bags of Chinese takeout?–and where sensors like the lidar should go. Various wheel sizes were tested, too. Wheels needed to take on bumps with ease, yes, but they also had a psychological component to play: “The overall sense that my pizza drove all the way through town three inches from the ground doesn’t feel that good,” says Amit. Taller wheels held food higher.
The silhouette that eventually won out is what you see here, inspired by a shopping cart. The volume was just right for most foods. And it seemed to serve as a bit of subliminal branding to those unfamiliar with Postmates robots and what they do.
“Ideally, we want this robot to be the emoji of robot delivery,” says Amit. “And the best emoji would be a repurposed shopping cart, because the shopping cart has been the icon of e-commerce.”
Serve had to also be a good neighbor–the kind of robot you’d want to help if you saw it stuck in a ditch, versus one you’d want to kick or vandalize if it accidentally cut you off.
“Based on our learnings, we had a deep appreciation that for Serve to be successful, it has to be loved by the public it shares space with,” says Ali Kashani, VP of special projects at Postmates X. “Our goal was to change hearts and minds on first sight.”
As Amit puts it, the team realized Serve needed to be more like the clunky Wall-E than the perfect Eve. Serve couldn’t be an untouchable symbol of Silicon Valley excess to succeed. It needed to be perceived as a real member of the community, or at least, an empathetic one. “That’s ingrained into the whole thinking. It’s not austere. It’s not ‘clean,'” says Amit. “It’s vibrant and relevant to the location.
You’ll notice that much like Wall-E, Serve has two, big, inescapable eyes. Amit is quick address criticism the design community has about anthropomorphizing robots, pointing out that the eyes have a purpose: “Those eyes you see in the front are actually two very good cameras creating a stereoscopic view,” he says. “The eyes were there functionally first then we decided to enhance them in the design.”
The eyes do give the robot a hint of pitiable consciousness that makes you think, “huh, maybe I shouldn’t kick this thing over.”
Likewise, Serve’s paint job isn’t set in one corporate design begging to be defiled. It’s really a wrap, meant to be customized by local artists–much like many neighborhoods will paint their fire hydrants. As for its UI, that’s modeled largely after automobiles, with lights all over the body to signal its intent, like that it’s turning left or about to reverse. And finally, Serve has a touchscreen on top that allows anyone to call a live customer service agent. So you’ll never be frustrated by some shortcoming in Serve’s own AI.
“The notion here from an operational perspective is, if a community ‘owned a robot,’ there’d be less of a motivation to mess with it, and more communal support if the robot gets caught in a ditch or messed up by some idiot,” says Amit.
Serve’s design is manipulative, yes. It coaxes you to care about a machine that’s not owned by you, and is taking up public space. But Postmates seems serious about considering ways Serve can act like a friendly member of a community, not just look like one.
“There are high peaks in on-demand delivery–there’s more demand during lunch and dinner times,” explains Kashani. “After business hours, however, we have a fleet of Serves sitting around.”
Postmates would like to see that fleet do all sorts of things. Maybe it would “walk” someone home at night who desired an escort. Maybe it could flag potholes and infrastructural issues for the local government. Kashani points out that 15 million Americans suffer from food insecurity, while 30% of food is wasted every year.
“With a fleet of delivery robots sitting idle as restaurants, grocery stores, and event venues close for the night, we can use our fleet to move some of that food to places that need them,” he says.
Of course, these promises are all just theoretical until we see them in action, at scale. With Serve, Postmates is presenting its vision of a socially oriented, privately operated infrastructure to come. Automation could take as many as 73 million jobs by 2030, and Postmates needs to position its PR–and its purpose–carefully for that future.
“There is no clear cultural grounding to the whole thing,” says Amit. “Maybe we are overcompensating. But maybe that’s the right thing to do at this time when these things are becoming part of our life.”