OK – they’ve convinced me.  I’ve tended to view all “autonomous vehicles” – from driverless cars to grocery robots – with a grain of salt.  But I’m now told that the grocery delivery possibility looks like a real one – and far more likely to be happening in the near future than the driverless car.  For one thing,  there are existing laws and infrastructures to contend with when attempting to operationalize driverless cars, as well as serIous safety concerns.

Other than overcoming the AI problems associated with sending a vehicle out on its own to navigate the city streets, however, is the problem of a need for segmented lanes for the self-driving wagons.  One could assume that bike lanes could be used for that purpose, but cyclists tend to be flinty about anyone or anything sharing their lanes.  So, we’ll see how that works out.  There have been recent, successful breakthroughs in the bot delivery vehicle.  In December, 2018, Nuro featured a bot half the width of a car and designed to drive on the street at a maximum speed of 25 MPH.  The robot is designed to sacrifice itself (and your pint of ice cream that it’s carrying) in the event of a crash with a pedestrian, cyclist or other vehicle.  A federal law allows a loophole for low-speed vehicles that excludes them from having to have the traditional safety features of automobiles.  Thus, rather than being crash-resistant (as is the need for cars), the delivery bots can be made of foam and fiberglass and designed to disintegrate in a crash.  It’s said that grocery delivery, currently prohibitively expensive for most customers, is “especially ripe for disruption.”  (WSJ article, “The Grocery Robot is Here.”)

Between 2 and 4% of the $641 billion worth of groceries purchased each year are bought online.  Thus, the entry of the bots to that enterprise could reenergize local grocery retailers and restaurants.  The difficulty will be to ensure rapid delivery – a pizza must be delivered within 10 minutes from being taken from the oven, for example.  Auto makers Ford and General Motors have realized that grocery delivery need no longer require the use of a car and have become full participants in the investment to provide production of autonomous delivery vehicles.  Currently, almost all of the robots in their trial phases need minders of one sort or another.  Some are “minded” remotely; others are followed by a human in a car.  All of the bots are vulnerable to pranksters or thieves and can sound an alarm when unauthorized entry is attempted.  Irate locals, however, present a different sort of problem – some citizens are currently unwilling to share the streets with bots of any sort – food delivery or human passenger.  But I was convinced of the good possibilities when I read the following:  “With sufficiently inexpensive autonomous delivery services, we might stop going to the grocery store, or at least stop carrying our groceries home.  We might buy things more often, rather than amassing a long list and buying once a week.”  Now, there’s an argument worth noting.  Being able to stop going to the grocery store is a personal goal of mine – for whenever it can be made to happen!  What about you – would love to hear your views on alternative modes of acquiring and receiving the food stuffs necessary to replenish the pantry.

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