Mail delivery robot.

From mail carrier to droid: Meet your friendly neighborhood autonomous ground vehicle


Trend insights of using mail delivery robots.

Read time: 8 minutes

Some pedestrians have already met them: small boxes on wheels that scoot down public sidewalks and cross city streets. Developed to travel from A to B autonomously, these robot rovers (technically known as autonomous ground vehicles or "AGVs") use cameras, GPS and radar to “see" their environment and navigate through it. These robots are the first of what many companies and cities foresee as a wave of inexpensive, high-tech alternatives to car-enabled shopping trips and delivery trucks that contribute to traffic gridlock and pollution.

But are city dwellers as enthusiastic and accepting of these robots as delivery companies and city leaders want them to be? The United States Postal Service (USPS) recently conducted a study to gauge the potential perception of these delivery robots when used for delivering mail.

Why the U.S. Postal Service study?

We're at something of a tipping point for helper robots in general, and especially for AGV delivery robots. Futurists envision a digital "smart city" where these robots play an integral part of the on-demand economy, and many cities and businesses are rolling out the welcome mat. Starship Technologies, Effidence, Savioke, Marble and other robotics companies have had their 'bots delivering takeout food, small packages, and flowers for some time, and many prominent retailers are looking to up the ante in the race to solve the perennial last-mile delivery problem of delivering goods direct to your door. The need and timing are right to see these task-driven robots achieve operational feasibility in cities.

On the other hand, some cities have put the brakes on the use of AGV robots for delivery, and are enacting new zoning restrictions, requiring a permit for their operation or requiring that a human handler be present while the robot is in use. Some of this restraint is driven by legitimate public concerns around safety when humans and robots share the sidewalks, but other people simply consider the use of a high-tech robot to make a sandwich delivery as just another unnecessary and unwanted gizmo.

Does the public perception of a delivery robot matter?

As these collaborative robots begin rolling and walking in the real world, there can be anxiety toward the machines and how we're supposed to interact with them. As with any new technology, there's an acceptance curve along the path to adoption of the technology. People wonder if it's safe for these robots to operate on crowded city sidewalks, or around people, pets and other hazards. There are also questions about security, both for the goods being delivered and for data privacy.

However, when the public has a positive user interaction and sees the usefulness of the robot, and that it can "behave" in a socially appropriate way, they often begin to enjoy seeing them around. And a positive public perception of the delivery robots helps shape policy for adoption in cities where the technology will be most useful.

The study presented two concepts: an autonomous robot and a helper robot. The helper robot concept was better received by the public. Why?

While it's true that people had concerns about the safety of the autonomous delivery robot, 48 percent of the respondents still considered it safe. Interestingly, they were more concerned about the perceived security of the robot itself, as in theft or damage to the robot or its contents. In addition, the respondents were very concerned that both models would lead to a loss of jobs for people. These two concerns (security and jobs) far outweighed fears about possible malfunctions or sidewalk congestion.

The helper robot concept, which is a robot accompanied by a mail carrier, was viewed as a safer option by 60 percent of the respondents. Moreover, the helper robots were perceived to improve overall worker conditions, make a positive impact on USPS' image and thought to be less of a threat to job loss.

Are the robots really going to take our jobs?

Yes and no. As with many technological advances, there are threats to upend established industry and labor practices. Yes, some of the most dangerous jobs, as well as some of the most routine tasks, will be delegated to robots. However, technological advances also have been shown to create new opportunities and new jobs for people. In the end, human safety or convenience factors will outweigh concerns about job losses.

What are the potential upsides if the USPS decides to implement a robot delivery service?

Flexibility. In the study, most of the people surveyed believed that use of the autonomous delivery robot would lead to faster delivery, flexible delivery hours and the ability to choose delivery locations other than their home address. They also saw the use of delivery robots as an environmentally friendly choice. It's interesting to note that one in three respondents also indicated they would be willing to pay slightly more for this service. In today's on-demand world, consumers are willing to pay a little more for speed and delivery flexibility.

Efficiency. The Postal Service is not losing money due to Amazon or private shipper deals. In fact, their biggest revenue drainer has nothing to do with shipments at all: it's about employee benefits and pensions. It's true that first-class mail is declining, but the package delivery sector accounted for one of the Postal Service's brightest growth areas.¹ Currently, the USPS ships about 40 percent of Amazon's packages that last mile to your door by tapping into the vast network of households it already delivers to. Part of the reason Amazon receives a volume discount with the USPS is related to their automated logistics operations, which enable them to deliver in bulk to the Postal Service at the most efficient (and lowest cost) zone for those last-mile deliveries.

The USPS has been evaluating several robots recently. Their other report, Autonomous Mobile Robots and the Postal Service, provides some interesting use cases for robots in both the mail sorting centers and last-mile delivery scenarios. For the USPS, improving operations through any method of automation, including delivery robots, can help keep their efficiency high and their costs manageable as they plan for the future of postal logistics.

One takeaway we have from the USPS study preference for the 'helper robot' is that people tend to prefer new technologies to be rolled out gradually and with human oversight, but once people become familiar with the technology, the feedback becomes increasingly positive.

In the study, most respondents felt these robots would be in use in the next five years. Where is the trajectory of delivery robots going?

E-commerce has continued to be a driver for delivery robots in the consumer sector. A recent report by McKinsey predicts that autonomous vehicles will be delivering about 80 percent of packages by 2025 in developed countries where the cost of human labor is high enough to make the return on investment in the technology significant.² It will be especially important for the Postal Service to make investments in robotics and automation technologies to maintain competitive partnerships with the largest e-commerce shippers and meet consumer demand.

As consumers begin to see the benefits of autonomous vehicle delivery and technology, we'll see wider adoption of delivery robots for everyday use. While aerial drone delivery has been much touted, it is the autonomous ground vehicles that have the potential for fewer regulations, expanded sizes and wider travel ranges. Larger autonomous vehicles will be capable of delivering refrigerated items such as groceries, or even heavier items such as furniture or maintenance items and tools for the construction industries. Currently, most of the delivery robots are deployed in urban areas, but with technological advances, we may begin to see car-sized AGVs with a broader range that open the field for warehouse-to-door deliveries for suburban and rural neighborhoods. It may even become possible for the AGV to drive into your home garage and drop off your package autonomously without requiring that you be present.

Aside from the fears of robots taking jobs, how will an overall positive perception of robots will impact future development in the collaborative robot space?

One takeaway we have from the USPS study preference for the "helper robot" is that people tend to prefer new technologies to be rolled out gradually and with human oversight, but once people become familiar with the technology, the feedback becomes increasingly positive. The public is just beginning to become exposed to collaborative robots in public spaces. People may not be aware of them, but they're already among us, working their way into delivery, retail stores and service industries such as hospitals, hotels and airports. In fact, collaborative robots can be seen as the “everyday robot," and their usefulness will quickly outweigh any doubts people have about accepting them into our lives.

Once you've cleared the hurdle of acceptance, you've opened the door for refinement and specification of functions, and finally, scale. Think of it this way: few of us can imagine life without our personal smartphones, yet at one time the smartphone was just another innovative concept many people didn't see a need for. Perhaps we will continue to see a variety of purpose-built collaborative robots in the next 5-10 years, along with a widespread use across several industries.

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  1. 1. United States Postal Service. “FY2017 Annual Report to Congress."
  2. 2. Martin Joerss, Jurgen Schroeder, Florian Newhaus, Christoph Klink, Florian Mann. “Parcel delivery the future of the last mile." McKinsey & Company, September 2016.

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