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Robots Have Arrived In Austin, And They’re Delivering Pizza

Riley Pakes, with Refraction AI robotics company, monitors a REV-1 delivery robot on South Congress Avenue. Eventually, an attendant won't be needed, but a human will monitor the robot remotely.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Riley Pakes, with Refraction AI robotics company, monitors a REV-1 delivery robot on South Congress Avenue. Eventually, an attendant won't be needed, but a human will monitor the robot remotely.

In a narrow glimpse of the increasingly automated future awaiting humanity, 10 silver robots shaped like ice-cream carts are delivering Southside Flying Pizza to hungry Austinites in Travis Heights and the Central Business District.

The company behind the three-wheeled machines is hoping to grow its fleet exponentially and be part of a technological revolution in how people receive their deliveries.

"Robots are your friends," said Luke Schneider, CEO of Michigan-based Refraction AI. "Robots are going to make your life more convenient. They're going to make your city more sustainable, and they're going to make your life better."

The battery-powered devices, called REV-1s, go up to 15 mph and can recognize traffic lights and signs. They don't go as fast as a delivery person traveling in a car would, but Refraction AI argues they can take more efficient routes through traffic and don't have to look for parking. The REV-1 can go up hills, but if you live in a third-floor apartment, you'd have to walk downstairs to pick up your pie.

Multiple REV-1s can be monitored remotely by a single person with a stable internet connection, reducing labor costs compared to bicycle delivery. That person can intervene if hands-on operation is required.

For now, an attendant follows on an electric scooter. Once the robot's artificial intelligence learns to navigate Austin's unpredictable streets, the attendant will no longer be needed.

Some people expressed frustration on social media upon learning the REV-1 would occupy bike lanes. An Austin City Council resolution adopted in 2017 would have prohibited delivery robots from using bike lanes, forcing them onto sidewalks. But that was overruled by a state lawpassed by the Texas legislature in 2019 that allows the robots to use the sides of roads, including bicycle lanes.

"I can look at this in one way and go, 'Oh this is just another obstacle in the bike lanes,'" said University of Pittsburg professor Colin Allen, who wrote a book on teaching robots right from wrong. "But then I can say, 'It's yet another obstacle in a bike lane and why should I have to put up with this?'"

The REV-1 is required to yield the right of way to pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles. Exactly how that plays out on a single-lane bike path next to fast-moving cars is unclear.

"We end up accommodating and adjusting in ways that are okay for limited purposes, but we simply do not want to have that hassle all the way through our lives," Allen said.

Bike Austin, BikeTexas and Please Be Kind to Cyclists, three organizations that advocate for cyclist access and safety on the roads, did not return requests for a comment.

Delivery robots are new to Austin, except for a short pilot in 2017 by Starship Robots. But some cities have had them for years. Starship started operating in Washington, D.C. and Silicon Valley in 2017. FedEx is testing a same-day delivery robot called Roxo in multiple cities. Amazon launched a six-wheeled electric robot carrier named Scout in Seattle in 2019, but the company's plans to deliver products by drone have stalled.

The city of Austin wants to be a test bed for delivery robots. The Austin Strategic Mobility Plan, adopted unanimously by the city council in 2019, calls for working with the private sector to bring more into the city "to understand the possibilities they may serve."

But Austin's Transportation Department is monitoring REV-1 devices to ensure they comply with state and local regulations.

"We do under our city code have the authority to cease their operations," said Jacob Culberson, a division manager with the Austin Transportation Department. "As long as they were complying with state law, we don't feel there would be a need for that unless there was some safety violation."

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Nathan Bernier a KUT reporter and the local host during All Things Considered and Marketplace. He grew up in the small mountain town of Nelson, BC, Canada, and worked at commercial news radio stations in Ottawa, Montreal and Boston before starting at KUT in 2008.