Everybody who sees the new delivery driver for Southside Flying Pizza in Austin wants to stop and meet her. She’s short, a little clumsy, and right now, she needs help from a buddy when making her rounds, to ensure she doesn’t accidentally miss a stop sign or neglect to notice a speeding pickup truck coming around a blind curve in the city’s Travis Heights neighborhood, where she lives. Her name, indicated clearly on a sticker on her back, is 17, and she is one of a handful of REV-1 delivery robots, created by autonomous robotics company Refraction AI, out hustling pizzas to customers near Austin’s famous South Congress strip.
The way Refraction’s delivery bots work is straightforward: a customer goes to a restaurant’s website and places a delivery order, the same way they would if a human were going to be bringing them their food. (Southside Flying Pizza was the initial restaurant partner upon Refraction’s Austin launch in mid-June, with more coming in the next few weeks.) The robot, which is essentially a gray plastic trunk that stands a little taller than waist level and is built on a frame like that of a recumbent bicycle, then gets sent off from the “nest” where it awaits its assignment—currently, the only nest is at Refraction’s office a few blocks off South Congress—and on to the restaurant. When it arrives, an employee loads the pizza into the cargo bin, and then the little robot courier begins its appointed round, ambling peppily on the right-hand side of the road or in the bike lane, mostly on side streets, to bring the pizza to its hungry recipient. Because this is all early going for Refraction’s efforts in Austin, all deliveries are currently accompanied by a Robot Safety Operator, a human who stays in constant communication with a programmer at the company’s headquarters as he or she bodyguards the robot, training the AI to identify speed bumps on the road and pausing at intersections to help spot traffic that the still-learning software will better understand in the future. For 17’s delivery, the bodyguard is Riley, a friendly native Austinite on an electric scooter. Besides guiding 17 on its path until it eventually outgrows the need for his services, his primary other responsibility seems to be saying “it’s a delivery robot” to all of the many pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists who stop in their tracks to ask “what is that?” when they encounter the REV-1.
Riley, 17, and I make quite a trio as we meander through the neighborhood at around six miles an hour—the robot in front, Riley scootering a safe distance behind it, and me a few feet behind him on a bike. But 17 is the star of the show, and most folks seem to enjoy the novelty of seeing a delivery robot when they spot it. Right now, it is a unique presence on Austin’s streets, one of only a handful of Refraction delivery robots currently in operation. In the first week of the pilot program, Southside only deploys the bots on weekdays, with an extremely limited range, though Refraction says that they’re capable of a delivery radius of about three miles. “They’re supplemental,” Kevin Jamison, manager at Southside Flying Pizza’s South Congress location, told me. “We use them when we don’t have a driver available.” The restaurant also employs human delivery drivers, and works with the various delivery apps—though those, Jamison notes, cost the restaurant a few dollars more per delivery, and robots don’t need to be tipped. The robots are a bit of a novelty for the pizzeria, too. When I stopped by the restaurant to tail 17 on a delivery, the employees behind the counter, who had yet to meet one, made jokes about being replaced by the robots from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But the robots won’t stay novel for long, if Refraction grows into the kind of company that its CEO, Luke Schneider—a class of 1990 UT-Austin grad who’s spent much of the past fifteen years in executive roles at car-sharing companies Zipcar, Silvercar, and Flexcar—envisions. Schneider sees a big future for autonomous delivery robots, and one that can get on the road a whole lot faster than the self-driving cars that the world has been waiting to see launch en masse for the better part of a decade now.
Schneider sees delivery robots as fundamentally different from self-driving cars. Full-sized autonomous vehicles have been a nut that nobody—not Google, Uber, Tesla, or the big automakers—has been able to confidently crack, the sort of ever-tantalizing technology that’s somehow always still about five years away. And the stakes of getting it wrong are high. When driverless cars crash or hit a pedestrian, people die. That’s not so much a concern with Refraction’s delivery robots, which max out at around twelve miles an hour. A pedestrian who gets into a collision with 17 might suffer some bruises; if a truck crashes into the robot, it’s only going to crush a pizza. Recumbent bike frames outfitted with robotic technology and an AI system are a lot cheaper for the company to mass-produce than full-sized vehicles, too—which means that the robot-delivery revolution might start sooner than our eventual driverless-car future. It may even have already begun: in Houston, a different driverless bot delivered groceries, medicine, and, yes, pizza during the pandemic, and food-delivering bots at the University of Dallas are campus celebrities.
Refraction AI was founded in 2017 by a pair of robotics professors at the University of Michigan, and began making deliveries in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in early 2020. Ann Arbor is a small city, one-eighth the size of Austin, and its founders brought Schneider on in the fall of 2020 in advance of the Texas launch, with Austin as the company’s second city. Refraction’s Austin office is still a work in progress—the walls are bare; the furniture is sparse; the REV-1 nest, where the robots charge and await deployment, isn’t yet complete—but the company’s launch in the city isn’t exactly about Austin, anyway. Schneider says he imagines a robust future for Refraction in Austin, with tens of thousands of robots ferrying everything from meals and groceries to dry cleaning and medicine, but it’s all part of a larger growing process for the company as it attempts, like its robots, to learn how to navigate a tricky world. “It’s actually not being built for Austin,” Schneider says of the REV-1. “Austin is not a megacity, but it is nicely positioned somewhere in between, and it’s growing.” What the bots learn here will work in other cities, he hopes. “Austin’s a big, spread-out city; it’s got canyons and flat plains and blackland prairies; there’s more street parking here,” he says, identifying some of the situations Refraction can learn how to manage in Austin that it can’t in Ann Arbor.
Texas is also a good place to be if you want to test new technology on public streets. In June, when the Austin Transportation Department announced on Twitter that Refraction’s robots would soon be cruising the city’s bike lanes, Austinites were quick to dunk on the whole concept. Pizza delivery has been working pretty well without robots, after all, and there’s been backlash to the seemingly endless stream of technologies no one asked for popping up on city streets. (Early last year, city officials had to specifically ask people to please stop throwing rental scooters in Lady Bird Lake.) Cycling advocates, meanwhile, were livid at the thought that the bike lanes they fought hard to have built could potentially be clogged with robots. When I asked a rep from the Austin Transportation Department about the city’s role in the deployment of a robot delivery workforce, he pointed out that, while the city and Refraction worked together on the launch, the city didn’t have much authority to regulate the company, as a 2019 state law created an extremely relaxed regulatory framework for companies like Refraction, legalizing their operations and preempting cities’ ability to regulate them. Schneider, meanwhile, has a sense of humor about the response to the department’s tweet—he brought it up before I could ask about it—but also notes that the company went to the city to figure out how to launch in a way that fit in with Austin’s plans, which is a courtesy that, say, Amazon might not offer. Cyclists may not love competing for space with a REV-1 delivery robot, but if we already live in a bicycle dystopia in which drivers for DoorDash or Uber are stopping in bike lanes to do their pickups and drop-offs, scooters are abandoned on the side of the road without a thought, and motorists are blaring down the road because they’re sick of navigating congested streets, he argues, then maybe replacing some of that with bike-sized robots traveling at roughly the pace of the average cyclist won’t be so bad?
Like most tech CEOs, Schneider is quick to offer a utopian vision for what his company will bring to the lives of the rest of us. He’s got plenty of fanciful uses in mind for future iterations of the REV-1—in states where marijuana is legal, he can imagine outfitting the robots with humidors and turning them into lil’ robot weed dealers!—but knows how to sell what he’s doing as a way to make the world a better place. His company’s robots could cheaply and quickly bring groceries to folks who live in food deserts, he says, or solve the “last mile” issue that disabled and elderly residents face in getting medications delivered. (It’s easy to get goods to a central hub like a restaurant or a supermarket, but harder and more expensive to get them that last mile to the customer’s house. This is a problem that’s currently addressed somewhat less speedily by the U.S. Postal Service.) He’s been practicing a few taglines in the initial wave of press he’s been doing around the company’s Austin launch. “Robots are your friends” is one of them.
Following 17 as it hustles its delivery around Travis Heights, I can’t help but feel a little tenderly toward the autonomous, cost-effective last-mile logistics solution, which would surely delight Schneider if he knew. One of the keys to Refraction’s success will be engendering warm feelings toward their robots, if only to discourage customers from ordering pizzas just to throw the delivery devices into the river. There are a few reasons the company started with food delivery, even though the robot technology has substantial industrial and business-to-business applications. The pandemic proved that food delivery is a huge market—demand on app-based platforms like DoorDash and Postmates more than doubled during 2020, according to MarketWatch—but the existing business model costs too much to make any of the large national players in the space profitable. (Restaurateurs generally aren’t thrilled by the cut those companies take, and the kind of gig-economy jobs that Refraction hopes to replace with robots are often a race to the bottom for workers.) Starting out by bringing people dinner also just makes a calculated kind of sense: who’s going to be mad at the robot that showed up with a pizza?
Maybe 17’s final form will be as the REV-2 or the REV-100, joined by tens of thousands of robot friends in cities from Brooklyn to San Francisco, clogging bike lanes and leaving Postmates and Uber Eats drivers hustling for new gigs from coast to coast. But for now, the little pizza-delivery robots making their debut on Austin city streets are but a novelty, learning their way around and testing solutions for a future we’re not quite living in yet. At some point not too far off, we’ll find out if they really solve more problems than they create. Ultimately, only time will tell us if the robots really are our friends.