This article was originally published by Sarah Wray on Cities Today, the leading news platform on urban mobility and innovation, reaching an international audience of city leaders. For the latest updates, follow Cities Today on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and YouTube, or sign up for Cities Today News.
Start-up Refraction AI has launched a pilot program with ten of its REV-1 delivery robots in Austin, Texas.
The service launched with Southside Flying Pizza for deliveries in the South Congress, Downtown and Travis Heights areas of the city, with scope to expand as more businesses come on board.
The three-wheeled electric devices, which travel up to 15 mph and are controlled remotely, will operate in bike lanes or the street where bike lanes aren’t available. Assistants ride close by to ensure safety.
The delivery vehicles are described as “approximately the size of a person on a bicycle” at 1.37m tall (4.5 feet), 1.37m (4.5 feet) long and 76cm (30 inches) wide, and can hold around six grocery bags.
“Collaborating with innovators in this space gives us an opportunity to learn more about robotic delivery and how it can benefit the community as we continuously work to improve our transportation ecosystem,” said Gina Fiandaca, Austin Assistant City Manager for Mobility. “We believe that greater access to robotic last-mile delivery will lead to a greener future with safer, less congested streets, and we’re excited to leverage the technology as we continue to prioritize both sustainability and equity.”
No city funding is going into the pilot.
Jacob Culberson, Division Manager, Mobility Services, City of Austin, told Cities Today: “The city’s responsibility always is safety.”
The city worked with Refraction AI ahead of the launch, including ensuring the robots adhere to rules around lights, braking, etc. and demonstrating them for the fire and police departments.
Austin also sought feedback from the City of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Refraction AI’s robots have been operating since December 2019.
“Refraction AI was great in working with us to bring that together…and we feel confident that [the devices] are safe,” Culberson said.
One day at a time
Austin Transportation Department’s announcement of the robots on social media prompted a flurry of queries from local residents, including some concerns about the use of bike lanes.
“If we can reduce the number of single occupancy vehicles by supplanting them with small electric carriers that pose much less risk to people around them than traditional motor vehicles, then I think that’s a win,” Culberson said, adding that due to their size and speed: “I feel there’ll be little interference with our bicycle folks.”
The devices are required by state law to stop and yield the right of way to all other traffic, including bikes and pedestrians. According to Refraction AI, the REV-1 has “the shortest stopping distance of any device on the road”.
Culberson says the city will take things “one day at a time” and could develop local regulations if necessary, as it did with e-scooters.
There is no formal data-sharing requirement for the pilot but Refraction AI has agreed to share some data points with the city. Residents are also encouraged to report any issues to the 311 service.
“Over the past year, it has become more apparent that our current solutions for on-demand delivery are broken; local businesses and households are having a hard time keeping up with rising fees while profitability remains elusive for even the biggest players,” said Luke Schneider, CEO of Refraction AI, which launched in 2019. “Our expansion into Austin marks another step in our vision to transform last-mile delivery into a ubiquitous, accessible, sustainable service that anyone can take part in.”
Starship Technologies also ran a short pilot with sidewalk delivery robots in Austin in 2017.
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