You are here

Will robotic stores, billboards and RVs roam the streets?


A few years ago, Eran Shir (who was one of my students at Singularity University and who today has an interesting startup using mobile phones to solve ADAS and self driving problems) suggested that rather than delivery robots, the future might see roving stores. These would be self-driving trucks filled with the most popular items for their region which come to you. You would open them, shop, and automatically be charged for items. From time to time they would travel to a depot for restocking.

Recently a Chinese company showed off a concept mock-up of this idea called Moby, and while the video is a bit silly, the concept opens up some interesting questions without answers.

One one level, sending the whole store, rather than putting your online order into a delivery robot is pretty seriously inefficient -- in energy, cost and use of road capacity. The robots we're working on at Starship Technologies are designed to deliver with vastly less resources. It is better to have a depot where robots can load and have them come to you.

At another level, however, loading robots at a depot is not a solved problem. The Moby approach allows the customer to pick what they want out of the roving store, and the depot can have humans which restock the store who only have to work in brief stints. Delivery robots would need either robotic loading, or full time humans who were always loading, and the latter is not efficient, unles

Another reason people might like the store is for the items they still like to pick by hand, such as produce, and items people like to try on, like clothing. However, while the Moby concept has the shopper buy a pair of shoes, having a lot of clothing inventory would be pretty challenging. Today, something the size of a bus, loaded with stuff, gets around 6 miles/gallon. Operating cost is around 90 cents/mile (plus parking.) There is more if it needs refrigeration. If it's electric it might drop to 60 cents/mile.

Smaller delivery robots with just a few popular items can be quite efficient, especially when they serve multiple customers in an area. Of course, we've had local robots serving us various items for decades -- it's called the vending machine. In Japan, it's perhaps easier to list what you can't get from a vending machine than what you can.

So if the full robotic store is inefficient, is there a public policy solution? I'm usually not up for banning things before they exist, but it will be curious to see where it leads.

There is one thing I do think I might ban before it exists, and that's a robotic version of those trucks that drive around town with just advertising on them. They have no cargo, they are just a billboard on a flatbed. Today they are not that cost effective, but in the future one could imagine the roads becoming clogged with them.

This makes me imagine a general principle -- a robot on the roads should be there in service of a person. That means carrying a person, or going to pick one up, or carrying goods to a person (or company.) A robot that is just cruising around would not qualify. Even with this rule, you obviously need some exceptions which support the human purposes, but don't involve travel to a human:

  • Travel to a parking spot to wait
  • Travel for maintenance or fuel/energy
  • Predictive repositioning to be closer to where need is expected

The last one would allow the store-robot to roam, to some degree, but it would still need to be in the service of people who will use the robot, even if they are not yet identified. An advertising robot would be serving the advertiser, not the people who interact with it. At the same time any rule will cause the immediate finding of loopholes. The billboard would also take passengers if they "happen" to want to circle downtown all day.

But what about something like Google Streetview, which most people find handy? What about robots doing surveillance, or as suggested in the comments below, market research and intelligence gathering (corporate and state?) Will we tolerate data gathering robots only when traffic is light, but forbid them if traffic is heavy? What if it is traffic they wish to study?

There is generally no need for a robotaxi to roam the streets looking for riders the way yellow cabs do. New York yellow cabs spend 38% of their miles cruising around. In fact, other than advertising, I would be interested in comments on other reasons a robot might go on the prowl. Police robots might cruise the streets for surveillance and to show police presence. So, so far:

  1. Advertising -- billboards and ice cream trucks, show of force
  2. Surveillance -- mapping, data gathering, policing, stalking

Any others?

This is somewhat related to another abuse I imagined almost a decade ago -- the Robo-RV. And not just the RV, but the idea that you could actually have a fleet of RVs which travel with you. When you stop, they would dock together to form a large living area. This idea seems grossly anti-green at first blush, but a simpler form of it actually is efficient: Doing travel in a small vehicle, but when you stop, summoning locally sourced compartments for sleeping, cooking, entertaining or other functions. This approach could actually be better than hauling a whole RV with you on a road trip at 8 miles per gallon.

At least Moby didn't call their concept Bodega.


Assuming autonomous vehicles, I think we're apt to see a ton of piggybacking apps. Roaming, bedecked with billboards, sure, but also doing continuous market research, e.g., detecting competitors' products on front lawns, or parked in driveways, collecting images of all of the people encountered and using those to distill better market-targeting data. And as data continue to aggregate, increasingly being able to uniquely identify individuals. So, yes, that ad-bedecked suburban bodega-barge will also be outfitted with cameras (and various other sensors) and use them.

Google streeview is a prime example. We like it (mostly) but we might not like things similar to it. I suggest that we might consider that such robots operate only when traffic is light -- people will be quite bothered if their commute is slowed down by crowds of data gathering robots. But what about a robot gathering data on traffic?

And while I suggested the robot be moving to serve somebody, the shipment of goods to companies and between depots doesn't serve any individual, though in theory all the goods are eventually destined for a person, we just don't know who it is yet.

When self-driving cars are this ubiquitous other robotic services will be as ubiquitous, and we will need to severely regulate to avoid having roads clogged beyond belief. There will be roving medical vehicles ready to help at a moment's notice. There will be stalker vehicles and drones spying on attractive women and persons of interest. There will be pedicure peddlers, barbershop buses and stripper sedans. There will be party trucks and workout trucks. As in Japan with the vending machines, you can ask yourself what won't be coming to you on the back of a truck? We're going to either need bigger roads, regulation or much less lazy people, and I don't see the last one happening.

Certainly you will be able to buy almost everything delivered. The question is, why would a robot be roving. Ie. moving without a specific destination in mind in service of a customer? So if a robot brings you something, even a whole store, it didn't clog the roads any more than you driving to a fixed store to buy the thing. Actually slightly less. If it roams just to get attention, like a billboard or an ice cream truck, that's where it's potentially clogging the roads. So that's what I am interested in readers suggesting. What reasons would somebody have to send a robot out roaming. Advertising and surveillance are two we've listed. (The ice cream truck is mixing advertising with delivery. The delivery part is OK, the advertising less so.)

The roving billboard idea requires viewers whose attention you are trying to catch.
Generally this means pedestrians. I guess in big cities where people walk to public transport or walk to lunch or sit at road side cafes this might work. My feeling is that because people spend far less time walking or sitting outdoors these days, that the potential audience doesn't make it worth it. Even if it is worthwhile it would only be at very specific locations.
People in other vehicles are obviously poor targets because they are either travelling in the same direction, in which case only a few see it, or going in the other direction, so there is little time to see it.

So, ice cream trucks rove because when someone hears the song they leave their house and go get ice cream. It's an impulse purchase. Why have ice cream from the ice cream truck when you could have just walked down to the ice cream store? Well, because you weren't going to have ice cream until the truck drove by. So they will rove, because they will get business by roving. The same way store put candy bars by checkout. You weren't planning to have a candy car, but there it is, so why not?

That's why I say that the ice cream truck is roving to advertise, one of the two classes of reasons to roam.

The question is, how should society treat that? Do we want ice cream trucks roaming the streets? Is it sufficient that you be able to just pull out your phone and have ice cream delivered when you decide you want it? We have fond memories of the trucks in many cases, though they probably weren't good for us. If we allow them, what other types of promotional roaming must we allow or should we allow?

I see no reason that drone cars need to do the data gathering, unless of course the data gathering is FOR the deployment of robocars.
Robo taxis can presumably be used for gathering data for their further development as well as for other purposes.

In some places roving could be an alternative to parking, and it might even be a chipper alternative.... unsurprisingly this was brought up before by the good people of new-your - self driving cars nyc face massive roadblocks

My bad....

So there's a way robotic advertising could work and not contribute to traffic congestion: flying billboards, i.e. drone banner towing. Small versions could be towed by fixed wing drones over highways or neighborhoods. Larger versions could be used for large outdoor venues like stadiums, racetracks, beaches. Banners or electronic signs could be suspended from long skinny blimps having just enough propulsive power for station-keeping, and could dropped off and picked up by other drones.

I have a vague memory of some science fiction show having a world where ads are hanging from drones everywhere, but I can't be sure which. There is something like it in the opening of Futurama, I think. Since they are not sure they even will allow drone delivery over populated areas, I suspect this won't actually be allowed, though.

At another level, however, loading robots at a depot is not a solved problem.

Talk to Ocado.

You're saying Ocado has a completely unstaffed depot, where products sit on shelves and robots grab them and load them into other robots?

Add new comment

Subscribe to Comments for "Will robotic stores, billboards and RVs roam the streets?"