Photo credits: Just_Super

On Monday 16 May 2022, Uber Eats launched two autonomous delivery pilots in Los Angeles to deliver food without the need for human drivers.

Uber is known for using automation and innovative technology in their services, with expansion of automated delivery their likely next step. To make this happen, the food delivery company is collaborating with two US startups: the autonomous vehicle company Motional, and Serve Robotics, a robotic sidewalk delivery company spun out of Uber itself. Deliveries made by Serve Robotics will be confined only to short routes around the West Hollywood area of the city, whereas Motional will be in charge of longer delivery routes in Santa Monica. The new program is a part of a range of new products Uber is launching across its ride-hail and delivery platforms.

Delivery robots will be able to navigate pavements to a drop-off location, where human operators will take control to ensure ‘a convenient and seamless experience for customers’ – a spokesperson from Uber Eats said. ‘These are small pilots of developmental technology. Looking forward, adding autonomous technology to our network can help to increase network density and the reliability of our platform and bring more merchants and consumers to Uber’. In addition to the cost of food, Uber will be charging customers for deliveries from both its partners. However, in California, autonomous vehicle deliveries require a permit that Motional reportedly doesn't possess, so customers won't be charged for deliveries from their vehicles for now. ‘The hope is that [the pilots] are successful and that we learn over the coming months, and then figure out how to scale’.

The announcement has raised concerns for platform workers and worker’s rights activists. ‘It is not surprising to see Uber Eats invest millions of dollars in automated delivery robots, given that it fails to treat its workers as human beings’, said the President of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain Alex Marshall. ‘Uber Eats couriers across the globe face poverty pay and abysmal working conditions, in the UK lacking basic rights such as holiday pay and pensions’. According to Camilla Lenzi, associate professor of urban economy from Politecnico di Milano, ‘AI and adoption of new technologies, in general, has an impact on how work is done as some tasks can be automated’. ‘What we see in our research so far is that in the EU new technologies have not fully replaced jobs. Many skilled jobs can be under threat while low skilled [labour] can expand’.

Autonomous delivery was announced along with several other new delivery products during the Uber Eats’ Go/Get 2022 event, such as launching voice ordering and expanding its Vouchers program to general consumers to use for at events like weddings. With these initiatives, Uber Eats aims to reach more customers and find ways to potentially provide lower cost deliveries. Despite the food delivery boom, latest earnings reports show that Uber is still losing a lot of money from its core business. With a potential EU directive on platform work on the horizon, gig economy companies are concerned that the unfolding court judgments on the classification of their workforces further threaten their exploitative business models. In this context, it is no surprise that Uber and its competitors take part in new and innovative ways to reduce its workforce and increase its profit margins.