Robots in Mountain View are already driving passengers, running security patrols and baking pizzas. But very soon, these automatons could also be delivering dinner, going on beer runs or picking up your dry cleaning.
Three startup companies have recently asked Mountain View officials for permission to test out their prototype delivery bots in town. These robots -- some of which look like they were built to explore the surface of Mars -- will instead be navigating the city's sidewalks and learning to maneuver around pedestrians, pets and traffic.
Mountain View officials say they are eager to serve as the technology's proving ground. City staff expect to draft policies for a pilot program later this year.
To hear the companies describe it, delivery robots are nearly ready for prime time. The technology closely mirrors the race to develop self-driving cars, with 12 companies around the world reportedly competing to design delivery bots.
"It's a super exciting time for the industry," said Henry Harris-Burland, vice president of marketing for Starship Technologies. "This is an emerging industry that I compare to self-driving cars. I see delivery bots as following a similar trajectory."
For Starship, the testing phase in Mountain View will focus on food delivery. Headquartered in London, Starship has already set up shop in the Bay Area with a satellite office in Redwood City. In May, that Peninsula city launched a nine-month pilot program to test out the Starship's robots on public sidewalks. Since then, Starship has also started testing out similar deliveries in San Carlos, Sunnyvale, Concord and Walnut Creek.
In Redwood City, the pilot program has gone remarkably smoothly, said city Economic Development Manager Catherine Ralston. Starship partnered with the food-delivery service Doordash to have its robots transport meals from restaurants in Redwood City's downtown area. Starship's robots move just slightly faster than walking speed, about 4 mph, and they have a range of only about 2 miles. For this testing phase, Starship has been sending out employees to babysit the robots while they're on deliveries.
"It's a been really successful so far," Ralson said. "Sometimes the robot can get bottlenecked by all the pedestrians, but generally it always ends up being able to get by."
Any attempt to bring Starship's technology to Mountain View would be implemented gradually, Harris-Burland said. The city's downtown, with its array of restaurants and wide sidewalks, is the perfect testing ground, he said. The ultimate goal is to drive down the costs to less than $2 per delivery, which would attract a lot more restaurants to sign up with the service, he said.
If food deliveries are successful, the company hopes to quickly expand its business to handle grocery trips and delivering parcels.
But even during its testing phase, Starship will have some competition. A Swiss firm, TeleRetail, has also requested permission to try out its fleet of delivery bots in Mountain View. TeleRetail CEO Torsten Scholl said his robots are designed to be a for-hire service that can be adapted to various tasks -- just don't try to transport something that's alive, Scholl said.
"The vision behind our platform is like Zipcar: anybody can use our robots to run whatever errands they want," he said. "We have a complete logistics platform that enables us to integrate any mode of transportation."
A third company, Robby Technologies of Palo Alto, has requested permission to test out its robots in Mountain View. The company did not respond to the Voice's interview request.
Mountain View is aiming to have draft policies for a delivery-robot pilot program ready this fall, said Alex Andrade, the city's economic development manager. That program would look to balance the technology's significant business opportunity with safeguards, he said.
"We want to be an enabler when it comes to technology," Andrade said. "We want them to succeed, but at the same time, we want to ensure public health and safety are protected."