Are Food Delivery Robots The Wave Of The Future Or The Scourge Of The Worker?
Somewhere in Santa Monica, a human orders a salad, a latte and a donut for delivery from Alfalfa, a sunny Ocean Park cafe. The order pops up in the kitchen and the staff prepares the food. Instead of handing it to a driver, an employee walks to a boxy Coco delivery robot parked outside the front door and places the order inside the rectangular compartment that comprises the bot's "torso." The little machine, with its cheerful orange and pink exterior and its twin front-facing headlights, rolls out of the shop and down the sidewalk like a first-gen Wall-E. It trundles past joggers, shoppers and store owners, carrying food but also a whiff of something else — the future.
Utopian Dream Or Dystopian Nightmare?
In the last two to three years, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, food delivery has exploded in popularity. Where many people saw convenience and accessibility, Coco co-founder and CEO Zach Rash saw a problem. Outside of the densest urban areas, such as New York and San Francisco, most food delivery is done by people driving vehicles. Gas-guzzling, atmosphere-destroying, unsustainable vehicles.
"We've seen that the future is going to be things being delivered, and that doesn't look so good for the future, if you're doing it the way it's done today," Rash says.
Third-party delivery apps like Postmates, UberEats, Caviar et al. require a workforce of humans, who, as Rash notes, are now exclusively 1099 gig workers. They sit in cars, crisscrossing town, often driving from their homes, which are far away, to deliver food that's within a few miles of the restaurant. They have to idle between deliveries and double-park outside restaurants while they wait for their goods. Rash believes the process is inefficient for drivers, clients and our environment, and he thinks Coco's robots are the solution. They're electric. They're already stationed at participating merchants so there's almost no lag time between when the food is prepped and when it can leave the restaurant. They're piloted remotely by trained W-2 employees who work on accessible computers.
"One of the best advantages of this platform is that we can take more cars off the road... We're moving a couple pounds of food a mile or two, so it doesn't make sense to do that with a 4,000-pound, gas-powered car all day, every day across the whole city," Rash says.
Because these delivery bots weigh only 80 pounds and are electric, and because Coco doesn't need to advertise to consumers the way delivery apps do, Rash says the company can pass the lower overhead on to merchants. That generally means lower per-delivery fees for Coco's clients.
Does the process work? For Alfalfa, so far so good, according to Dan Londono. In February of this year, he and co-founders Andrew Arrospide and Daniel Sobsey made the jump across the country, adding a second location (in Santa Monica) to their original spot in Hoboken, New Jersey.
"When we first decided to open in Santa Monica, we spotted the robots and were immediately intrigued," Londono says.
They got in touch with Coco, and they've been using the bots for local delivery during their entire West Coast run. They like the fact this is a zero-emissions technology. It falls in line with their guiding principle, which Londono describes as "balance, not just in cuisine but also in [our] carbon footprint."
The Coco bots are broadly considered "last mile" apparatuses but Alfalfa's bots can deliver farther than you might expect, within about 2.5 miles around Santa Monica and into Venice. If you order delivery via Alfalfa's Toast page (accessible directly from their website), it will be completed by a Coco bot. If you're outside the robot delivery range, the cafe is also on DoorDash.
Londono says they prefer Coco's deliveries. They've found that their food, particularly their cold salads and drinks, travels well in the bots. As a bonus, "The robots themselves actually attract attention and lead to folks wanting to order to test out the robots," Londono says.
Unlike certain other tech startups that launched in Santa Monica without community approval (cough, cough, Bird), Coco has been meeting with community groups to introduce their bots. Alfalfa hasn't experienced any vandalism or harassment of its signature tech. Instead, Londono says, when bots have occasionally tipped over, people have picked them up and sent them on their way.
For Alfalfa, Coco's delivery robots have been an unqualified success. But whither the delivery driver?
A Familiar Problem, A Futuristic Fix
Rash and Coco's intentions are noble but Kent Wong, director of UCLA's Labor Center and the vice president of the California Federation of Teachers as well as a former staff attorney for the Service Employees International Union, worries about the impact of increased automation on delivery workers.
Where Rash sees an environmental and efficiency problem in human-powered delivery, Wong sees an economic and equality problem in its automated counterpart. "It's not like these advances have benefited workers, they've benefited the elite," Wong says.
There's abundant historical evidence, he points out, to support the claim that advances in technology don't translate into better pay for frontline workers.
"Farm workers are more productive now than ever, given the advancement in automation and the advancement of improved machinery… and yet farm workers are still making poverty wages," Wong says.
He notes that when ATMs displaced bank tellers, self-serve gas pumps displaced station attendants and automated assembly lines displaced automotive workers, none of these jobs saw proportional wage increases.
"In an ideal society, when you have advances in technology that reduce the workforce or the number of hours required of workers, everybody should benefit. You're enhancing worker productivity, therefore workers should be paid more and they should have to work less," Wong says.
Throughout history and across industries, that has rarely, if ever, happened. The COVID-19 pandemic has been no different.
"The problem that we have seen, under the pandemic, is that billionaires are making billions. Amazon is making record profits, and the workers in the warehouses and as delivery people are making poverty wages. Amazon is not sharing their profits. They're using it to fly Bezos into outer space," Wong adds.
If Coco is able to improve working conditions and create more desirable jobs, fantastic. But based on recent and historical precedent, odds are that other driverless delivery companies will jump into the fray and they won't share Rash's desire to offer training, benefits and better job protections to their human workforce.
Wong believes the best shot for workers in the emerging driverless delivery industry is through organizing. Once again, recent history shows how tough it can be tough to accomplish that.
The largest delivery companies work tremendously hard to keep their employees from forming unions, according to Wong. He points to Amazon's interference in union organizing in Alabama and to the nearly $200 million spent by big tech companies in support of California's Prop. 22, which categorized app-based drivers as contract workers instead of employees, making it difficult for them to collectively bargain.
Just last week, a judge ruled Proposition 22 is unconstitutional and unenforceable because it infringes on the state Legislature's ability to regulate compensation for workers' injuries. Ride-hailing and delivery companies such as Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart have vowed to fight the ruling.
"Tech executives are the robber barons of the 21st century," Wong says. "They may wear jeans and sneakers to work, but their role in exacerbating class and racial divisions is every bit as extreme as the robber barons of the last century."
Spreading The Wealth
There isn't an easy solution. At the highest levels, Wong says, "It's great for companies to be more efficient and productive, but there has to be a shared notion that society as a whole should benefit, not just a handful of elites."
Unfortunately, the precedent set by technological advances in the last century or so gives Wong little hope that this notion is shared by tech execs. Instead, he predicts a future in which the delivery industry repeats the sins of its predecessors. As driverless technology improves, he expects to see it displace more humans while the remaining workers receive few tangible benefits.
Although the delivery industry can be demanding and mercurial, it also has its pros. The barrier to entry is relatively low and doesn't require a degree or specialized training. The hours are flexible, allowing people to organize their schedules around school and childcare. And these jobs offer a broad swath of people a chance to earn some income.
Wiping out most of these jobs will make life harder for the musician who delivers food in between gigs and lessons, for the student taking classes during the day and driving at night, for the parent who wants to supplement the family income while their child attends daycare, for the young person trying to make a little cash while they figure things out.
As with many other industries upended by automation, there's no obvious or adjacent career path for workers who have been made redundant. Mass displacement typically means more competition for the shrinking number of human-powered delivery jobs with no increase in pay or benefits for the people who do them.
Coco's tech is only the first wave. Companies including Amazon, Nuro and AutoX are developing fully automated delivery robots, which are even less friendly to current delivery workers than piloted bots. Large scale implementation appears to be a ways off — Nuro may be the farthest along, and they're still early in the testing phase — but the robots are coming. And they're not just coming for drivers, if Elon Musk and his Tesla Bot have anything to say about it.
History shows us that the titans of industry almost always choose profit over people. Here, at the dawn of the driverless age, Rash and his compatriots have the opportunity to deliver on the ultimate promise of technological advancement: a better life for people in every tax bracket. To do that, they can't simply revolutionize the machines and apps that power their industry, they'll also have to revolutionize their corporate and civic philosophies.