Public Safety Commissioners Are Skeptical About Robotic Delivery in West Hollywood

Members of the Public Safety

Commission were less than enthusiastic last night about a proposal to test an “autonomous delivery vehicle” (a.k.a. robot) on the sidewalks of West Hollywood.

Postmates, one of several delivery services used these days by restaurants and retailers to get their products directly to their customers, is proposing a test in West Hollywood of “Serve,” a robot that delivers.

Vignesh Ganapathy, director of government relations for Postmates, said a positive impact of the sidewalk robot would be a reduction in the use of cars and trucks to deliver products. In Los Angeles, Ganapathy said, 80% of deliveries are my automobiles. He said Serve also would be able to deliver more quickly than would someone in a car or truck, who might have to drive around to find parking.

“The goal of the pilot program is to see how many cars will be taken off the streets,” Ganapathy said.

The robot would consist of a delivery box on wheels that would weigh about 50 pounds, would be about two and a half feet high and could deliver up to 50 pounds of merchandise. Ganapathy described it as being like a “cooler on the street.”

The robot would have two “eyes,” which would be cameras that use a LIDAR (light detection and ranging) tool to survey the area ahead with a laser light. Postmates would have a human pilot to remotely oversee a fleet of the robots. However, Ganapathy said Postmates would have a human being following the Serve robot on foot during the test in West Hollywood.

Commission Chair Amanda Laflen, who once managed Mel’s Drive-In, questioned the usefulness of a delivery robot. “I see it as disruptive and a hardship for a business,” she said, noting that it might block people trying to enter and leave a restaurant.

Both Laflen and Commissioner Ruth Williams questioned how the Serve robot would be able to deliver directly to those living in apartment buildings (renters, largely of apartments, constitute 78% of West Hollywood’s population.) Human beings delivering for Postmates and competitors like GrubHub typically are buzzed into an apartment building and deliver directly to the customer’s door.

Williams, who lives on the city’s Eastside and sometimes orders food from places on Fairfax Avenue that are south of WeHo, said she imagined delivery by car would be faster.

Commissioner Tory Berger, who travels largely by bicycle, said it was hard for him to imagine an autonomous robot moving out of the way of someone riding a bike on a sidewalk in those parts of the city where biking on sidewalks is permitted. West Hollywood residents already have been outspoken in their opposition to autonomous scooters and electric bicycles on sidewalks.

The proposed test of Postmates’ robot delivery service will have to go before the City Council for final approval. Laflen called out Postmates for reaching out to city leaders for input rather simply launching the system by dumping it on the city’s sidewalks, which is the controversial approach used by dockless scooter companies like Lime and Bird.

Ganapathy said Postmates already has tested the Serve delivery system in a senior living facility in Rossmoor in Northern California. He said it also has tested the Serve robot into Pink Dot, the store on Sunset Boulevard that pioneered on-demand delivery of groceries in Los Angeles with its opening in 1987. Robotic delivery devices also are being tested by other services such as Doordash. The video below shows a man trying to steal from a Doordash robot.

Ganapathy acknowledged that the Serve robot might not be feasible in some areas of West Hollywood like Fountain Avenue, where the sidewalks are very narrow.

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