The autonomous sidewalk delivery company, Serve Robotics, has announced the deployment of its next-generation delivery robots, becoming the first autonomous vehicle company to complete commercial deliveries at Level 4 autonomy. The achievement is the result of nearly five years of work by the Serve Robotics team and represents a major step forward for the autonomous vehicle industry, significantly lowering the barriers for autonomous delivery at scale. The Level 4 autonomy means the Serve Robotics' latest generation of robots are able to operate routinely without human intervention and can rely on their onboard capabilities to ensure safe operation. The robots are equipped with an extensive array of technologies that ensure the highest degree of safety by utilizing multiple layers of redundant systems for critical navigation functions. This includes multiple sensor modalities – active sensors such as lidar and ultrasonics and passive sensors such as cameras – to navigate safely on busy city sidewalks.
The self-driving robots are the result of five years of research and development, and they represent a major advancement for delivery services. To create the next-gen robots with level 4 autonomy, Serve Robotics has worked on several features such as automated emergency braking, vehicle collision avoidance, and fail-safe mechanical braking. Designed to resemble a futuristic shopping cart, the latest Serve robot developed by the company measures 30 inches (76 cm) in length and it's 21 inches (53-cm) wide and a height of 40" (101.6 cm). It has a 50 lb (23 kg) storage capacity, and it can get around on four wheels with the help of its "eyes" (which are actually cameras). Together with active sensors such as lidar and ultrasonics, the robot can safely navigate on busy city sidewalks without bumping into pedestrians or objects. Serve's technical breakthrough was possible with support from key tech partners, including NVIDIA and Ouster. The AI computing platform required for robots to perceive their diverse surroundings in real-time is powered by the NVIDIA Jetson, while the machines' self-driving capabilities are enabled by Ouster's 3D lidar sensors. "I'm proud that Serve Robotics has achieved Level 4 autonomy, which further enhances public safety by significantly reducing the potential for human error.
Hanging on the wall of Postmates' stealth R&D laboratory, there's a framed photo of an iconic scene from Star Wars, Luke Skywalker bent down beside R2D2. Except someone has used Photoshop to replace Luke's face with Ali Kashani, Postmates' VP of Robotics. Nevermind that Kashani has never seen Star Wars (he considers this a point of pride). Kashani recognizes the symbolism of his face in a world where robots roll around next to people, where bots act almost like friends. Kashani joined Postmates a year and a half ago, with a special mission to bring robots to the company.
The prospect of truly zero contact delivery seems closer -- and more important -- than ever with the pandemic changing how we think of last mile logistics. Autonomous delivery executives from FedEx, Postmates, and Refraction AI joined us to talk about the emerging field at TechCrunch Mobility 2020. FedEx VP of Advanced Technology and Innovation Rebecca Yeung explained why the logistics giant felt that it was time to double down on its experiments in the area of autonomy. "COVID brought the term'contactless' -- before that not many people are talking about contactless; Now it's almost a preferred way of us delivering," she said. "So we see, from government to consumers, open mindedness about, maybe in the future you would have everything delivered to you through autonomous means, and that's the preferred way."
Uber is spinning off Postmates' autonomous delivery division into a separate startup called Serve Robotics. The company inherited the unit when it acquired Postmates last year for $2.65 billion. According to Bloomberg, Uber will invest approximately $50 million in a Series A financing round that will make the company a minority stakeholder in Serve Robotics. The startup will operate independently of its former parent. However, it will maintain a close relationship with the company through a partnership that will see its sidewalk robots deliver groceries and other essentials to Uber customers.