Peter Daniels is one of the millions of Americans working from home because of the coronavirus. Daniels, 29, stopped commuting to his job at delivery startup Postmates in mid-March.
Now, instead of making a half-hour trip from his apartment in San Francisco’s Sunset District to the company’s office downtown, he moves a few feet from his bed to his desk.
From there, five days a week, Daniels watches delivery robots as they roll along sidewalks 350 miles away in Los Angeles. The bots drive themselves from their dispatch centre to the restaurants and shop-pickup points, then to customers’ homes. If one gets stuck, it pings Daniels or one of his fellow fleet supervisors for help.
"The most common thing is construction or just a torn-up sidewalk,” said Daniels in a phone interview. "We have to figure out how to get around that.” From his widescreen desktop monitor, he sees what a robot sees and guides it around obstacles, using his keyboard.
The setup and the software are made by Phantom Auto, a Mountain View, California, startup that provides remote driving technology for just about anything with wheels and a wireless Internet connection, from cars, trucks and forklifts to yard trucks and delivery robots.
Postmates began developing autonomous delivery robots, a project known internally as Postmates X, in 2017. It partnered with Phantom Auto last summer, a few months before its fleet of four-wheeled, black-and-yellow robots began making short-range deliveries in Los Angeles. Supervisors have been on hand for every trip, as is required by California state law.
The Serve bots, as Postmates calls them, also operate in a smaller area in San Francisco. Over a few days in mid-March, Daniels and his fellow fleet operators all switched to working from home instead of commuting to offices in those cities.
The transition was fairly seamless, said Ali Kashani, vice president of Postmates X. "We put workstations in homes. We upgraded the home Internet. We developed new standard operating procedures,” he said. "We had to add some features to monitor connectivity better so that if, at any given time, [the operators’] connection isn't good enough, we can notify them and they can transfer the robot to someone else.”
Postmates also adjusted how the robots load and unload goods, eliminating the need for human contact. In the past, vendors would key a code on a touchscreen on the robot to open the lid and put a package inside. Customers would do the same to fetch a package. Now, a fleet supervisor operates the lid remotely at both ends.
"We wanted to move really quickly so we didn't make it too complicated,” said Kashani. The pandemic, he added, has changed the way customers view its robots. In the past, they were mere novelties. "Now they see it, and they immediately think ‘social distancing’,” he said.
"We've seen a lot of repeat customers, people who specifically request the robot,” said Daniels. Some restaurants, he said, have been throwing in a roll of toilet paper with each order.
While robots account for only a small slice of Postmates’ deliveries in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the pandemic, said Kashani, has accelerated growth: "During Covid, we’ve actually done more deliveries and put more robots out than we anticipated.” Since the outbreak began, he said, the robots have served thousands of households in Los Angeles.
He declined to specify how many robots the company operates or how many deliveries they make. The number of fleet supervisors, he said, is "more than a few”. Each supervisor monitors more than one robot at a time, though Kashani won’t reveal the exact ratio – a key metric in the business model of remote delivery.
"When the robots first go to a new neighbourhood, it's a one-to-one ratio,” said Kashani, "And then, over a number of weeks, it learns everything it needs and the ratio goes up.” Postmates knows the number it needs to hit to operate profitably, he said, and can reach it within weeks in a new service area.
"When these robots are at a large scale, we can make the economy accessible to more people, including those who might have a disability or may not have access to transportation,” said Kashani. "You could sit at your computer and help deliver goods.”
Phantom Auto, according to Elliot Katz, co-founder and chief business development officer, has seen an uptick in interest in remote operations since the outbreak began. The company began in 2017 with a focus on helping autonomous cars accelerate their path to market. With the slow pace of robotaxi development – and now, the virus – logistics and delivery have become its main lines of business.
Warehouses and distribution centers, said Katz, are particularly keen to find ways to keep workers home. "We are working with folks operating forklifts from remote locations,” he said, "so that they can keep the supply chain alive while not risking furthering the spread of this virus.”
Daniels, for his part, is looking forward to getting back to the office. "It's not the same as working with your colleagues,” he said. "I guess the one silver lining is that I don't have to commute or wear shoes.” – Bloomberg
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