Uber Eats is launching two autonomous delivery pilots in Los Angeles on Monday with Serve Robotics, a robotic sidewalk delivery startup, and Motional, an autonomous vehicle technology company.
The new programs are a part of a range of new products Uber is launching across its ride-hail and delivery platforms, which are being announced on Monday at the company’s Global Product Event.
The Motional partnership was originally announced in December and marks the first time Uber is partnering with an AV fleet provider, as well as the first time Motional is trying its hand at autonomous delivery. Until this point, Motional has focused on robotaxis, securing partnerships with companies like Lyft and Via.
Serve Robotics is actually an Uber spinout, so seeing the two partner in the delivery space isn’t surprising. But it’s notable that Uber isn’t working with Aurora on this, given the two companies’ partnership in the freight space, their shared history, and the fact that Uber is a major investor in Aurora. Aurora acquired Uber ATG, Uber’s self-driving arm, in 2020, and under the terms of the deal, Uber invested $400 million in the company, giving it a 26% stake.
Uber told TechCrunch the company is looking at partnering with more than one player in the space, and that the public might start to see more partnerships in the future.
Both of the pilots are starting out small and delivering food from only a few merchants, including, an organic cafe and juicery called Kreation. Serve’s program will focus on shorter trips in West Hollywood. Motional’s will handle longer distance deliveries in Santa Monica, according to an Uber spokesperson.
“We’ll be able to learn from both of those pilots what customers actually want, what merchants actually want and what makes sense for delivery as we start to integrate our platform with AV companies,” said the spokesperson. “The hope is that they’re successful and that we learn over the coming months, and then figure out how to scale.”
Customers will be charged for deliveries with both Serve and Motional, including the cost of food, according to Uber. It’s not entirely clear how Uber and Motional will swing that, though. In California, to be able to charge a fee for autonomous delivery, Motional would need to be granted a deployment permit from the Department of Motor Vehicles. So far, it only has a permit to test with a safety driver on board.
In answer to this, Uber said only that “Motional and Uber expect that certain delivery fees which might normally be applicable may not be charged during this initial phase.”
Motional clarified further, saying during the pilot, there will not be fees specific to the delivery orchestrated by the Motional vehicle.
There don’t appear to be any laws restricting companies from charging for deliveries made by sidewalk robots, so Serve is in the clear. Uber said that if a customer decides to tip a Serve robot, they’ll be reimbursed.
In addition, per the rules of Motional’s testing permit with the California DMV, a human safety operator will be on board the vehicle during deliveries. This operator will also drive the delivery vehicle manually when near customers’ drop-off locations, as needed, according to an Uber spokesperson.
“If there is a drop-off point that’s close by, but not within Motional’s current autonomous service area, the vehicle will be operated manually in order to deliver the order to the customer’s house, rather than asking them to walk to meet the AV,” a Motional spokesperson told TechCrunch. “This is done to ensure a convenient and seamless experience for customers, and to maximize the number of opportunities to provide a touchless delivery experience to customers. As Motional’s delivery autonomous service area expands, more trips will be completely fully autonomously.”
Serve’s robots are capable of operating under Level 4 autonomy in some scenarios, the company has said. During the Uber pilot, the robots will be monitored by a remote operator who will take over in certain use cases, like crossing the street, Uber said.
Customers residing within one of the two geofenced test zones will see an option at checkout to have their food delivered by an autonomous vehicle. If they opt in, the customer can track the food like they normally would, and when it arrives, they will get a notification to meet the AV outside. Customers will get a passcode on their phone that will allow them to unlock the vehicle and grab the food, whether the meal is in one of Serve’s cooler-like robots or the backseat of one of Motional’s cars.