Innovative game changers shaping the future of delivery

Food delivery has always been driven by consumer desire for on-demand solutions. The first instance of delivery dates back to 1889, when King Umberto of Italy wanted Chef Raffaele Esposito to bring him a pizza, as he was too lazy to get it himself. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century, and people are placing delivery orders with restaurants through calls, mobile apps, and computers.

To keep up with an ever-evolving practice, robotics companies and third-party delivery services are racing to introduce the next big thing. The goal is to develop eco-friendly, cost-effective delivery solutions that benefit restaurants and consumers by lowering labor costs, increasing margins, and meeting customer demands.

Below are a few of the game-changing delivery solutions that are in the works or already on the streets (or in the air).

Autonomous Vehicles

Autonomous vehicles are self-driving cars or trucks equipped with radars, cameras, laser beams, or any other feature allowing them to transport from place to place without the need for human control. Currently, more than 1,400 autonomous vehicles are being tested in the U.S. by over 80 companies. There are five levels of autonomy, with level one needing basic driver assistance, and level five being completely autonomous, like we’ll see with AutoX.

AutoX will use a modified Lincoln MKZ vehicle in its grocery delivery pilot. AutoX

Known for its self-driving grocery solution and mobile mini-mart, AutoX has recently made its way into the restaurant industry. Earlier this year, AutoX provided 14 restaurants in San Jose, California, with its autonomous vehicles to fulfill delivery orders. Restaurant delivery is appealing to AutoX because its cars are able to make multiple deliveries at once, which increases the car’s efficiency and the number of orders a restaurant can satisfy. Although AutoX is focusing on direct partnerships with restaurants for now, this self-driving technology could be a possible delivery solution for third-party delivery services like UberEats or DoorDash in the future.

In January of this year, DoorDash announced its partnership with General Motors’ Cruise Automation to test food deliveries with GM’s autonomous vehicles in San Francisco. Dressed with radars and cameras that take pictures at 10 frames per second, the Chevy Bolt EV can see more than a human driver could, easing concerns about safety in a crowded city. Unlike AutoX’s completely autonomous model, each Chevy Bolt will be accompanied by a DoorDash “dasher” to pick up the order from the restaurant and hand it to the customer.

Uber has been discussing a partnership with Nuro, an autonomous vehicle company, in an effort to improve Uber Eats’ margins and lower driver costs through automated food delivery. At only half the size of a regular car, Nuro’s self-driving electric vehicles can drive up to 25 mph, allowing it to navigate neighborhood streets. The plan is for the vehicles to bring orders from restaurants to a central hub, where a human courier would then pick up orders and deliver them to customers’ doorsteps. This practice allows the drivers to handle more orders at once, therefore making more money. Whether or not this partnership will develop is still being discussed.

Personal Delivery Device

Not all markets are a fan of innovative changes in the restaurant industry. Several companies, including Starship Technologies and Marble, have faced roadblocks in San Francisco while trying to introduce food delivery bots, also known as Autonomous Delivery Devices (ADD) or Personal Delivery Devices. Unlike autonomous vehicles, PDDs are small autonomous vehicles that navigate sidewalks and driveways for last-mile deliveries.

In 2017, San Francisco Supervisor Norman Yee played a significant role in slowing progress, arguing the safety of seniors, people with disabilities, and children. 

“Our streets and our sidewalks are made for people, not robots. This is consistent with how we operate in the city, where we don’t allow bikes or skateboards on sidewalks,” said Yee.

Supervisor Yee initially proposed to completely ban PDDs from San Francisco sidewalks, but the ultimate decision of the Board of Supervisors was to pass Ordinance 244-17, an amendment to the Public Works Code allowing PDDs to operate on sidewalks for research purposes under strict regulation.

Despite the continuing resistance in San Francisco, robotics companies are gaining momentum in cities all over the globe. Earlier this year, the Estonian-based startup, Starship Technologies, teamed up with Sodexo, a French food services and facilities management company, to launch a food delivery service at George Mason University’s Fairfax campus in Virginia. Equipped with nine cameras, ultrasonic sensors, a capacity of 20 lbs, and a max speed of 10 mph, Starship’s robots will be delivering Blaze Pizza, Second Stop, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Starbucks to college students. To address the concerns of safety, Starship has a team of remote teleoperators ready to take control at any time.

Postmates took a different approach to creating its automated courier, Serve. Focusing on how its design affected the community, Postmates’ R&D lab, Postmates X, teamed up with the San Francisco-based design firm, NewDealDesign. With so much backlash around robots, the idea was to create a relatable robot that could be readily accepted by strangers.

“Our goal was to change hearts and minds on first site,” said Postmates X’s VP of special projects, Ali Kashani.

Being adorable isn’t Serve’s only quality. Its eyes are actually cameras, offering a stereoscopic view. Lights are used to signal which direction Serve is going, much like a car. And, for the benefit of the customer, Serve has a touch screen that allows one to call a customer service representative should they experience an issue.


A drone is an autonomous delivery device that delivers lightweight packages via airways rather than the streets or sidewalks. Although new to the restaurant industry, drones have had many purposes since they were introduced in 1839. Most notably, unmanned combat aerial vehicles, or combat drones, are used by the military to carry missiles. Photographers interested in aerial photography also use drones to reach great heights and capture significantly more impressive pictures than they could from the ground. Recently, delivery companies like Amazon and Uber have been looking to drones as a delivery solution.

Uber is currently seeking approval to launch its drone delivery service. To complete its deliveries, Uber will be using AirRobot 200, a star-shaped drone that has 6 propellers and a maximum weight capacity of 25.5 lbs. Although this project requires exemptions from 16 federal safety and operational regulations, the testing will provide valuable information to the FAA and U.S. Department of Transportation. In support of Uber, the Commercial Drone Alliance stated, “In the absence of an existing certification pathway for commercial UAS operations, thoughtful approaches like this one will set a precedent for other operators seeking to enter the system safely and effectively.”

Instead of landing at the customers’ doorstep, drones will head from the restaurant to “designated safe landing zones” where Uber couriers can pick up the order and complete the delivery. Uber plans to start delivering this summer in San Diego.


Robots are automated machines that exhibit intelligence, sensing, and autonomy features. Autonomous vehicles, personal delivery devices, and drones are all robots because they perform a function without human control. Robots have been supporting functions in all industries since the 1960s. Now, restaurants like Zume Pizza are adopting robotic technology to perform menial tasks to increase their kitchen’s efficiency.

In Zume Pizza’s kitchen, robots Doughbot and Marta assist employees by rolling out dough balls into pizza crust and spreading pizza sauce. Zume is taking pizza delivery one step further with its “Baked on the Way” technology. By bringing its robot-assisted kitchen to the streets, Zume can deliver customers a pizza as fresh as if they had visited the restaurant. Each truck is stocked with 6 ovens and can make 120 pizzas per hour. Zume stocks its trucks with ingredients by using an algorithm that projects demand at different times of the day. Robots are an integral part of Zume’s vision because, as CEO Alex Garden says, “Automation exists to improve the quality of human lives.”

This year, FedEx will be testing its delivery robot prototype, SameDay, as a delivery solution for partners including Pizza Hut, Target, and Lowe’s. Similar to Postmates’ Serve, SameDay’s friendly design is meant to provide familiarity to the community. Its features, however, prove that SameDay is more than just an automated courier on wheels. This “last-mile delivery bot” can carry up to 100 pounds and has “arms” that allow it to climb stairs and navigate obstacles like rocks and curbs. According to FedEx,
“On average, more than 60% of merchants’ customers live within three miles of a store location, demonstrating the opportunity for on-demand, hyperlocal delivery.”

The company plans to start testing its prototype in Memphis this summer.

So what does it all mean? With robots making pizza and drones flying in with your buffalo wings, it may seem like we’ve officially made it to the future. But this is just the beginning. There will come a day where having a human bring you your food will seem just as outdated as corded phones and dial-up internet does now. The restaurant industry is constantly evolving and finding ways to optimize its guest experience. Ask yourself how technology can help boost your business and you, too, can introduce the next big thing.

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