Coming soon: Robot DoorDash deliveries

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — The robots are coming.

And they have burritos, Chinese food and burgers. If you’re a hungry DoorDash user in Redwood City, they may be coming for you.

Recently, the on-demand food delivery startup announced that in the next few weeks some customers will see robots showing up on their doorstep with their orders.

The robots, made by London-based Starship Technologies, are small, six-wheeled gizmos that cruise along city sidewalks, rolling at about the speed a pedestrian would walk (no more than 4 mph). They come up to a person’s knee, have space to store three grocery bags of food, and weigh about 50 pounds when fully loaded. DoorDash will roll out fewer than a dozen in Redwood City to start, intending to use them for small deliveries traveling short distances (good news for robot lovers who are too lazy to walk down the street to pick up their to-go order).

The robots are self-driving and are equipped with nine cameras to sense dangers and obstacles, but during this testing stage, will be accompanied by a human handler who can take control if necessary.

“By adding robots as a complement to the tens of thousands of Dashers who use the DoorDash platform, we’ll be able to better delight customers with faster, more convenient deliveries,” Co-founder and Chief Product Officer Stanley Tang wrote in a news release. “While other companies trying to play catch up in the delivery space either ignore the law or chase ideas like drones that lack the infrastructure to implement, we’re excited to be bringing autonomous deliveries to customers in weeks rather than years.”

Eventually DoorDash envisions the robots arriving outside a restaurant on their own, and alerting a worker inside of their arrival. Then the worker will load the food into the container, and the robot will zoom away. When it arrives at its destination, the robot will alert its customer with a text message, and the customer can use a button on his or her smartphone to open the compartment and grab the food.

The robots got a green light from Redwood City officials — ensuring the program won’t meet the same fate as Uber’s failed self-driving car pilot in San Francisco. Redwood City in November announced it approved the use of the “personal delivery devices” on city sidewalks for nine months.

“We’re excited that Starship Technologies chose Redwood City for this innovative autonomous robot program,” Mayor John Seybert wrote in a news release. “This has strong potential to reduce traffic in Redwood City and allow for some restaurants and businesses to serve a greater number of customers.”

For DoorDash, the idea behind the pilot program is to test out whether the robots can provide fast deliveries with good customer service, and to see how customers and restaurants react to and interact with the bots. For now, at least, DoorDash promises it doesn’t envision fleets of robots replacing its human delivery drivers. Instead, the company may add robots as one of its many delivery vehicle options — DoorDash workers use cars, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles, or they walk, and the startup takes those delivery methods into account when assigning orders.

Robots can avoid traffic (they drive on sidewalks, not the street) and don’t have to worry about parking, but can’t carry bulky pizza boxes or other large orders — making them ideal candidates for the small, short-distance orders human DoorDash workers tend to avoid because they promise less money than large, complicated orders.

The company also may use the robots to shuttle food from a restaurant to a human waiting at a nearby parking lot, saving the human the trouble of finding parking.