Could robots ease New York City congestion?

Why delivery droids aren’t ready to replace trucks – yet.

FedEx's autonomous delivery robot.

FedEx's autonomous delivery robot. FedEx

New York City has a package delivery problem. With 1.5 million packages delivered within the city every day, transported by trucks and other vehicles that exacerbate the city’s already serious traffic congestion issues, this problem will only grow as the holiday season approaches. On top of that, the city is facing criticism for not charging delivery trucks the full price for traffic violations, and New Yorkers are growing desperate for solutions to preventing rampant package theft

It seems, then, that New York City is primed for a delivery revolution. But despite the appearance of a FedEx delivery robot in Manhattan last month, that revolution is unlikely to include the automated systems anytime soon.

“Ideally, this would work in New York's ecosystem because we could really streamline our deliveries,” said Sarah Kaufman, associate director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation. “However, without allocating space to these robots, there isn't a way for them to navigate New York City streets. They don't belong on the sidewalks because they don't know how to interact with people very well, and they have been shown to handle mobility devices very badly, like when they encounter wheelchairs.”

FedEx – along with companies like Amazon and Postmates and startups like Starship Technologies – have been testing autonomous robots to deliver packages and even restaurant orders directly to customers’ doorsteps, forgoing the use of trucks or other vehicles in the “last mile” of delivery. Devices like FedEx’s use artificial intelligence, sensors similar to ones used by self-driving cars, and heavy-duty wheels in order to navigate sidewalks and pedestrians. Coinciding with rising demand for one- and two-day delivery from e-commerce sites (FedEx’s robot is aptly called the SameDay bot), these devices promise fewer delays caused by traffic and other logistical issues. In Memphis, Tennessee, for example, FedEx has tested the robots for same-day deliveries directly from stores within three miles of customers, partnering with stores like Target and Walgreens.

“Now that Amazon is going to one-day Prime delivery, they don't have enough people to be able to manage that, let alone (manage it) logistically,” said Bob Doyle, vice president of the trade group Robotics Industries Association, mentioning just one example of the demand for increasingly rapid delivery. “They need to rely on automation to meet the demands of the consumer because we all want something as quickly as possible.”

One of FedEx’s SameDay bots – which go by the name “Roxo” – turned up in SoHo last month, drawing the attention of pedestrians and, eventually, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his Department of Transportation. The department swiftly issued FedEx a cease and desist order, saying the robots violated vehicle and traffic laws, including the state law that prohibits the use of self-driving cars and a law prohibiting motor vehicles on sidewalks. “FedEx is not currently testing its SameDay Delivery Bot, Roxo, in New York City,” FedEx spokeswoman Jen Caccavo Cordeau said in a statement. “The Bot was visiting New York for a special event.” Experts were quick to agree with de Blasio’s stern “no thanks” to the so-called future of delivery – at least in the near future. 

“Certainly, these devices aren't ready, and so they would be risky,” Kaufman said. “They could be stolen or broken into. I imagine that a motivated New Yorker could break into one of those.”

These robots have been tested in other parts of the country, and some even have mechanisms built in to prevent theft. In 2017, San Francisco severely restricted the use of sidewalk delivery robots, requiring companies that wanted to test their devices to obtain a permit from the city. Since then, companies like Postmates have received permits to do so. The food delivery company claims that their electric-powered robots – called Serve – can carry up to 50 pounds and travel 30 miles on a single charge. Delivery robots have also found success on college campuses, where lighter vehicle and pedestrian traffic offers a somewhat more welcoming test site. 

While advocates worry that food delivery robots might someday take the place of delivery cyclists in New York City, devices like the FedEx SameDay Bot could presumably offer a more beneficial alternative to trucks or vans on cramped city streets. But as proponents of throttle electric bikes and electric scooters have discovered over the past few years, New York City offers its unique challenges when it comes to introducing new modes of mobility. “In a high-density urban area like New York City, such an idea may not work well,” Zhan Guo, an associate professor and director of urban planning at NYU’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, wrote over email. “There are too many operational complexities, not to mention all kinds of legal challenges.”

And as with any conversation about automation, the potential introduction of delivery robots will inevitably require consideration about their effect on human workers. In response to the FedEx robot in Manhattan last month, de Blasio expressed a strong opposition to robots replacing employees. “First of all, @FedEx, never get a robot to do a New Yorker’s job. We have the finest workers in the world,” the mayor tweeted. “Second of all, we didn’t grant permission for these to clog up our streets. If we see ANY of these bots we’ll send them packing.”

Doyle pushed back against the idea that automation necessarily means job loss. “They're not taking jobs,” Doyle said. “What they're doing is they're allowing the employees who are working with that company to put in more quality work.” He acknowledged, however, that preparing for a more automated future in general requires preparing the workforce for new jobs with different skill sets that will be required.

But City Hall isn’t about to back down. “FedEx’s robots wouldn't just undercut the jobs of hardworking New Yorkers – they would be a danger on our crowded streets,” said de Blasio spokesman Will Baskin-Gerwitz. “We’re hopeful last month’s letter was (the) end of this experiment, but we’re prepared to take further steps if FedEx were to bring them back onto our streets.”

Still, that doesn’t mean the city can’t look ahead a bit and envision a world in which an Amazon Prime delivery of a single toothbrush doesn’t require a massive delivery truck. One possibility for New York, Kaufman said, is that sidewalk delivery robots could be accompanied by a human employee, allowing the human to intervene or guide the robot if they encounter any issues. Some companies do send out human companions while they test their robots, but that pairing might be a practical long-term approach for New York. “These devices follow a person, and they get kind of imprinted like a baby duck follows its mother,” Kaufman said. “The person is really important for not the last mile but the last five feet, to unload the device to get to the actual apartment. That could be great for delivery workers' health and well-being, especially when they're transporting large items and heavy items.” In this scenario, the robots may not take the place of vehicles transporting large shipments from fulfillment centers, but could accompany delivery people as a high-tech dolley to get 100 pounds worth of cargo from a local UPS store to your apartment door.

Companies would also have to ensure that robots don’t endanger pedestrians sharing space with them. Think less Terminator, more R2-D2. “They have to be designed to make sure that they operate safely around people, around humans,” Doyle said. “They also have to make sure that they interact with people. That they're not scary.” Doyle pointed to the use of robots in Stop & Shop stores in New York – a smiley, googly-eyed droid monitoring aisles for spills and hazards. Some have criticized those, however, for not offering much in the way of usefulness.

In the meantime, there are other steps that the city could take to reduce congestion – and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions – caused by the delivery economy. The city is exploring solutions like off-hours delivery programs, while experts like Kaufman advocate for prioritizing the use of curbsides for purposes other than parking cars, including unloading deliveries and ride-hail pickups. Otherwise, she said, those things occur in bike lanes and car lanes, further increasing street blockage.

While New Yorkers may not share the sidewalk with delivery robots anytime soon, preparing for these types of new devices is something that the city will continue to grapple with, Kaufman said. “We're pretty far behind on building regulations for new modes, including scooters and e-bikes,” she said. “Now we have these delivery robots, and something else could come out tomorrow and we still won't know how to permit it to use our streets.”