SANTA MONICA - Step aside scooters, the latest transportation craze taking over Santa Monica is not a device users ride, but one that rides directly to the user — and brings with it tasty food.
Delivery robots can now be found rolling all over Santa Monica. And, as the city was once the launch point for a revolution in micromobility, these robotics companies are hoping the same trend will hold true for food delivery.
Leading the charge is a purple robot called Coco, which was designed by a team of UCLA graduates and hit the streets in fall 2020. Since then Coco has partnered with 24 local businesses and completed over 3,800 deliveries.
Customers place an order through a restaurant’s preferred delivery service and if they are in a one to two mile radius they may receive a text that their delivery is being completed by Coco. Restaurants will then put the order inside a bot and a remote pilot will utilize a built-in camera to drive the device to its destination.
“They have a great tech scene here, there’s lots of amazing restaurants, and perhaps most importantly, they have a history of being a leader in sustainability,” said Coco co-founder and CEO Zach Rash on his decision to launch in Santa Monica. “It seemed like a pretty intuitive choice.”
Rash is not alone in reaching this conclusion. Santa Monica was also the base for a pilot program of Kiwibot robotics and is expecting a third robotics company Tortoise to launch by the end of this year. According to City Senior Transportation Planner Kyle Kozar, more companies have expressed interest and may apply to operate in Santa Monica in the future.
The pitch of these robot delivery companies is that their devices provide benefits to the customer, merchant and community. By removing a car and in-person delivery worker from the equation, companies claim they can charge cheaper fees, boost delivery time and reduce congestion and CO2 emissions.
Coco calculates that its 30 local vehicles have so far reduced over 4,500 lbs of CO2 and saved 5,000 vehicle miles. Investors are buying into the company’s vision and recently contributed $36 million in Coco’s first round of major fundraising.
Unlike the rollout of Bird scooters, which were dumped en masse onto the streets to the ire of City staff, robot delivery companies are working closely with the City under its Zero
Emissions Delivery Zone (ZEDZ) pilot program.
The ZEDZ is a partnership with non-profit organization LA Clean Tech Incubator and encompasses a square mile area of Ocean Park and Downtown, where curbside pick-up is prioritized for zero-emission vehicles and devices.
The pilot program works with a variety of eco-delivery services that utilize electric trucks, cars, bikes, scooters, a van share and, of course, robots. Coco, Kiwibot and Tortoise robotics all applied to participate and are now working with City staff to ensure their services are in line with community priorities.
“We try to advise the companies to a certain degree, we want the companies to succeed,” said Kozar. “What we get out of it is we get to explore how we’re going to, as a city, regulate and ensure that these new innovative businesses that are coming our way and that are going to be the future for better or worse, can safely and successfully operate in the public right of way.”
For Kiwibot, working with the City meant a shift in its business model. When they launched what Director of Strategy & Business Operations David Rodrigo calls the “cutest robot in the field” — a device featuring a digital grin and wink — their main Santa Monica partner was multinational corporation Chick-fil-A.
Now, Kiwibot has temporarily rolled back its Santa Monica operations and is developing a partnership with a local food delivery platform that will serve local businesses and is expected to go online before the end of the year.
“Local businesses are paramount,” said Rodrigo. “Part of our experience in Santa Monica has led us to learn the importance of giving priority to local businesses over established companies.”
So far the feedback from restaurants using robot delivery is mainly positive.
“I think for us, the benefits have been the savings in delivery fees, using an innovative delivery service, as well as the environmental benefit from using a robot versus relying on a vehicle,” said Sweet Rose Creamery’s “Sweet Hospitality Director” Joseph Coccoli.
Sweet Rose Creamery has partnered with Coco since March 2021 and averages three to four Coco orders a day.
“3rd party delivery commission fees can exceed as much as 30 percent or higher from each transaction,” said Andrew Arropside, the co-founder of Main St. salad joint Alfalfa. “Through Coco’s technology, they’ve been able to bring this number down to make for a more affordable transaction for consumers and restaurants alike.”
Both Coccoli and Arropside mentioned that Coco is a new product and that this comes with a learning curve for both their staff and the robot operators. However, they said that overall there have been no major issues.
According to CEO Zach Rash, Coco provides a 97 percent on time delivery rate, a 30 percent reduction in total delivery times and 20 to 50 percent delivery savings for businesses.
On Sept. 14, City Council voted to extend the ZEDZ pilot program until the end of 2022 to continue encouraging the use of robots and other zero emission delivery modalities, while monitoring their impacts on the community.
When robots were first spotted being piloted and tested in Santa Monica in August 2020, Council was alarmed by the prospect of potentially unsafe autonomous vehicles and enacted a moratorium on such devices.
It was then clarified that Coco, which at the time went by Cyanbot, was driven by a remote pilot and is indeed not autonomous. Council also extended the autonomous delivery vehicle moratorium through the end of 2022 on Sept. 14.
Although the safety of robots is not currently a concern (there have been no reported accidents caused by these devices), Council members do have apprehensions about what robots will mean for local delivery jobs.
“I’m worried about the jobs, I was worried before and I’m still worried,” said Mayor Sue Himmelrich.
Both Kiwibot and Coco push back on the idea that their devices have negative consequences for workers.
Rash said that Coco has created over 50 local jobs, including the device operators who drive each delivery.
“We’re completely additive to the local economy,” said Rash. “It (device operation) is a higher quality job, you’re not depreciating your own vehicle and running around in traffic all day. You’re at home and you’re doing it on a computer.”
Rodrigo believes that the current status quo of food delivery is harmful to both merchants and delivery drivers, who only receive a fraction of the profits that 3rd party delivery apps reap from orders.
“Soon we’ll reach a point where we have more demand than we have people to do those orders, so essentially the current system is broken,” said Rodrigo. “Anywhere you see the human cost is too high.”
Kiwibot operators are currently all located in Colombia, where the company is based. Rodrigo said there are plans to hire American operators in the future and also pointed to the benefits that local businesses and their employees stand to gain from better delivery margins.
Himmelrich is not convinced that robot deliveries will only benefit workers as the jobs created by robot companies may not necessarily match the schedule, flexibility desired and skillset of typical delivery workers.
“I think we always need to be thinking about who are the people whose jobs were eliminated and whether we can create jobs for them in a different sector, if we’re eliminating their jobs in this sector,” said Himmelrich.
Ultimately, Council decided that the current benefits of delivery bots outweigh these potential negatives and voted unanimously to push forward with the pilot extension, noting that a pilot is by definition something being tested.