Weekly Brief: Micro-Autonomy May Be Key to Bots in Our Lives

Ever wonder what the world will look like 10 years from now?

Say you were to hop into a time-traveling rocket and set the touch-down date not for some far-off millennium but rather a mere decade down the road – distant enough to be different, near enough to be familiar. Buckle your seat belts, hit blast off and woooooooooosh! Just like that you’ve arrived in 2029. You open the door and step outside onto the sidewalk right as a cute autonomous delivery bot named Scout goes rolling by. It’s got six wheels, sensors to steer around people and pets on the sidewalk and brakes that bring it to a stop out front of a customer’s doorstep. Look at that! A lady from the future has just emerged from her front door, grabbed her Amazon Prime box from Scout’s locker and disappeared back inside.

That’s not all! No sooner has Scout’s top hatch closed than a fleet of electric bicycles goes zooming by in the street. There are no bicyclists, however. These bikes are riding themselves down the road, off to some distant bike-sharing station in a more heavily trafficked part of the city. Look at that, there must be fifty of these things balancing themselves. The moment they disappear, a second fleet appears consisting of self-scooting scooters. There’s not a human in sight. There’s not a self-driving car either. It’s just bikes and scooters and delivery bots everywhere you stare.

Welcome to the near future – at least one possible version of it. Last week Amazon announced that it’s got a last-mile delivery bot pilot underway in Washington State. Six Scouts are on the ground as we speak, autonomously delivering packages to customers Monday to Friday. An Amazon employee will chaperone Scout on its delivery route for the time being. Down the road Amazon expects its bots to graduate into solo service. Our editor Paul Myles offers more info on the pilot here.

Uber followed that up by revealing that it’s created a new division called Micromobility Robotics to focus on creating autonomous bikes and scooters. Uber owns an outfit called Jump, which operates various electric bike and electric scooter ridesharing programs around the US and in Berlin, Germany. One of the big problems with these programs is that bikes and scooters get left in random locations, leaving a shortage of bikes in heavily trafficked areas. If these bikes and scooters could steer themselves back to charging stations and points of need, it would make these programs a heck of a lot more viable.

I used to live in Paris near the Seine. It was commonplace to see big boats out on the river hauling hundreds of Vélibs upriver to heavily trafficked areas. It was hugely inefficient and is part of the reason the Vélib program is now in tatters [Other issues include lack of docking for the new high-tech electric bikes and software problems – Ed]. In the case of Jump and other electric bike-sharing and scooter sharing services, they pay contractors to go around the city and collect bikes wherever they’ve been dropped off. These contractors take care of charging the bikes and scooters and performing any repairs if need be – all overnight or off-hours. Then they take them back to the most popular renting locations. Talk about inefficient! Uber thinks it has a smarter solution.

We’ll see where both of these programs lead. In 10 years, maybe they’ll be everywhere. Maybe they won’t but my suspicion is that in the coming decade this type of micro-autonomy, as Uber has dubbed it – bots, bikes, drones etc – will sweep into our lives much more quickly than self-driving cars will. Sure, it’s possible that come 2029 human drivers will have gone extinct and robo-taxis and self-driving truck platoons will rule the roads. The iPhone debuted in 2007. Here we are in 2019 and smartphones are ubiquitous and the fundamental ways in which we communicate have been revolutionized. Imagine stepping into our time-traveling rocket in 2006 and coming out today. Your mind would be blown. The rate of change has never been faster.

The same thing could happen with self-driving cars. Certainly, they have the potential to be equally as transformative to mobility as smartphones have been to communication. Then again, the two have some big differences, especially when it comes to the public’s tolerance for errors. If you’re a smartphone manufacturer, you can iterate on the go. The original iPhone was a far cry from the iPhone X of today. The camera was lousy. It couldn’t auto focus and it didn’t have a flash. You couldn’t send videos or photos over text. Third-party applications didn’t exist. There was no 3G and yet people bought it because it was still super cool for the time and if you had a problem with this model, hey, the next model was only nine months away.

Self-driving cars have no such luxury. If a self-driving car has a glitch, if its cameras are junk or its LiDAR isn’t the best, if it can’t pick up pedestrians at night or struggles to turn left across traffic, it’s game over. Never mind the next generation doing better. Uber hit a pedestrian and had to cancel its whole program for half a year [see Continental’s opinion on this one]. No wonder Waymo was so conservative with the launch of its commercial business last year. This is going to happen but it’s going to happen in baby steps. Bots on sidewalks, on the other hand, drones in the sky, self-driving scooters that can drastically increase efficiency without endangering lives, may be a much easier ask.

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