A Kiwibot delivers food around the UC Berkeley campus via Kiwi, a new on-demand delivery service. Photo: Cirrus Wood

UC Berkeley has a new on-demand delivery service. Unlike any of its predecessors however, this one relies on robots.

Kiwi uses a fleet of 20 terrier-sized wheeled robots to pick up and deliver food and personal-care items within a roughly one square mile area centered around campus. The vehicles operate between Shattuck and Piedmont avenues and between Hearst Avenue and Dwight Way.

“If you want to start a robot company, use a campus,” said founder and CEO Felipe Chávez, “and if you want to use a campus, use UC Berkeley.”

The city and the campus were a natural fit for Kiwi. At the most basic level, the infrastructure — paved streets, well-maintained sidewalks, functioning traffic signals, crosswalks and a generally law-abiding citizenry — allows for robots to operate smoothly. In addition, UC Berkeley has a high concentration of residents pressed both for time and space to prepare meals at home. Finally, there’s Berkeley’s abundance of local dining options and a generally favorable attitude towards innovation.

Though Chávez started Kiwi in his native city of Bogotá, Colombia in 2015, using people as couriers, he switched to robots when he brought Kiwi north to Cal in January of 2017 as part of UC Berkeley’s LAUNCH program, an incubator for promising startups.

Chávez was not the first to notice the favorable local conditions for an on-demand food delivery startup. Caviar, DoorDash, Munchery, Sprig and the now defunct SpoonRocket, all began at Cal.

Chávez met up for our interview on Sproul Plaza preceded by one of the Kiwibots. It took an extra 10 minutes for Chávez to arrive on account of difficulty finding parking. Kiwi is in fact hoping parking difficulties may give it an edge over comparable services that rely more heavily on drivers. Though the area served by Kiwi is small, it is highly congested.

The bot roamed free-range on the plaza as Chávez sat on a bench for our interview. He looked ahead, unconcerned as the robot made several turns around the fountain, then headed off under an alley of trees, almost out to Sather Gate before turning back and circling the plaza again.

The Kiwibot’s motions appear self-directed but it uses the same technology as Roomba, the robot vacuum cleaner. It recognizes boundaries and avoids obstacles by using lidar sensors and has a smartphone mounted to its hood.

Which means that while it is undirected, it is not unmonitored. On the other side of the smartphone and 3,800 miles away is a crew member in Bogotá, ensuring the Kiwibot does not stray far. There is only a two-hour time difference between the respective cities, which means Kiwi’s Berkeley operating hours of 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. make for a 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. day in Bogotá.

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Here’s how the service works: a customer downloads the Kiwi app and places an order on their phone as they would with any other service. A driver with Kiwi then deposits one of the bots at the nearest designated stop, which serves multiple businesses and provides guaranteed parking for the driver. From there, Kiwibots proceed to the business for pickups, where the order is placed inside the bot. The now loaded bot returns to the stop where the driver can retrieve it. The driver then drops the bot at the stop nearest the customer and the bot rolls the final leg, a distance of up to 300 meters. The app notifies the customer when the Kiwibot has arrived.

Kiwi is not a fully automated delivery service and Chávez has no plan, at least in the short term, to make it one. It is instead an integration of existing and emerging technologies. There is always a driver circling the route and a human is available to intervene on more complicated orders, or should the bot suffer a mechanical issue.

That may not sound all that different from other on-demand services that do not use robots, but Chávez is very keen to emphasize the distinctions between Kiwi and its competitors. Instead of relying on drivers to do the full work of a courier — entering individual businesses, waiting in line and placing orders — Kiwi drivers are only charged with relaying robots between designated stops, transporting up to 12 Kiwibots at a time.

“We don’t deliver with cars. We deliver with robots,” he said. “Cars are just in the middle of the process to speed things up.”

“Our approach is that robots are going to empower humans,” said Chávez. He stressed that the driving part of the service operates more like a ferry or a parcel service, transporting a large package of orders simultaneously and not single orders one at a time. Drivers are independent contractors, paid per hour rather than per delivery.

“Always, the last part of the delivery is made by robots,” said Chávez. “Always, always.”

Because the driver does not have to personally locate customers, the platform can handle more jobs in less time with fewer people involved, passing the savings along to the consumer. Kiwi’s human competitors charge an average of around $9 per delivery. Their own cost of delivery is less than a third of that, at just $2.80 per delivery. In the near future Chávez hopes to offer “Kiwi Prime,” offering customers unlimited delivery for a flat monthly fee.

The reduced cost has contributed significantly to the startup’s growing popularity. Only a few weeks ago Kiwi made 500 deliveries in the course of a single week. There are 25 participating businesses that use Kiwibot, including Smoke’s Poutinerie, Gordo Taqueria, Walgreen’s and Tacos Sinaloa.

Kiwi founder and CEO Felipe Chávez with a Kiwibot at UC Berkeley. Photo: Cirrus Wood.

Those worried about the threat robots pose to jobs may take issue with this model. A human performs the token role of robot chauffeur but Kiwi has fewer workers overall than traditional food delivery companies. While Kiwi may hire more people as it expands, it is unlikely to require the same numbers as a human-based operation.

As with historic examples of mechanization, Chávez believes the greatest economic benefit is likely to be a reduction in overall costs to the consumer rather than in the creation of new jobs. Automation may have reduced the number of people employed in the manufacture of automobiles, for example, but the result was a more affordable car. For those who prefer a more human-centered approach, both Rolls Royce and Bentley still build by hand. Chávez is cautious about offering any grand predictions for the delivery business. “It’s still too early to say that robots are going to take jobs,” he said.

Delivery is after all a luxury service. The cost of Kiwi is much lower than its competitors, but it is even less expensive to just walk to a taqueria and cheaper still to cook at home. In neither of these scenarios, however, is there any discussion of the potential negative economic consequences for not hiring a human being.

For Kiwi, and other automated services, the priority is to offer the customer a cost-effective product. “On-demand services are convenient and an important part of people’s lives,” said Chávez. “Our customers are not rich. We want to be affordable for everyone.”

Chávez would like to consider expanding to Sunnyvale and Palo Alto as possible next steps in the growing market for on-demand robot delivery. Both cities have many of the same conditions that make Berkeley attractive. But Chávez does not want to pull Kiwi out of the Berkeley incubator too soon.“We’re more concerned about technology [than expansion],” he said. “We prefer to make sure that it all works.”

“The community here in Berkeley has been very friendly towards robots,” Chávez said, and thus far theft has not been a problem. When a Kiwibot disappeared earlier this year, it reappeared 10 minutes later on the campus lost-and-found website.

Still, the bots come with some measures to deter tampering. Kiwibots lock in deliveries and do not unlock until they have arrived at the address. Each bot is also equipped with tracking sensors, and while Chávez acknowledges that a determined thief could carry off a bot, “it would be like bringing the police to your door,” he said.

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Kiwi’s own relations with the police have, so far, been politely deferential. Early in its operations at Cal, one of the Kiwibots was stopped by a Berkeley police officer. No citation was given, but the officer informed Chávez that the robots needed lights, better signage and emergency contact numbers if they were going to be operating on city streets. Since then Chávez has been careful to alert the Berkeley Police Department every time Kiwi expands delivery routes.

The relatively tolerant reception in Berkeley to automated delivery has not been replicated everywhere. Virginia and Idaho have banned it altogether, and earlier this month San Francisco district supervisor Norman Yee introduced legislation to prohibit the use of wheeled robots on city sidewalks, citing concerns for pedestrian and vehicle safety.

Chávez agrees with Supervisor Yee’s concerns, but sees outreach and education as easy means of accident prevention.

“Because it’s new technology, it’s important to establish good relations to the community,” said Chávez. “We believe that the community is going to take care of the robots.”

The greatest problem, as Chávez sees it, is lack of precedent. “Right now there’s no lead,” he said. That is, there’s no single service that dominates the market and directs public attitudes, the way Uber accustomed people to the idea of ride sharing. “The lead is going to be the first company to do 10,000 deliveries in a week,” he said.

Five hundred deliveries in a week was a high watermark for Kiwi. Reaching Chávez’s goal will require more than a sharp uptick in additional orders for burritos. Chávez plans to expand the fleet of 20 robots to at least 100 by August. He intends to improve the Kiwibots, make them waterproof, extend the battery life, equip them with night vision, more cameras and better sensors. By fall semester 2017, he wants Kiwi to be in operation 24 hours a day.

By then, however, Kiwi may face more competition, from rival robot food delivery services such as from San Francisco-based startup Marble.

Chávez is unfazed. “I’m really glad there are other companies out there doing the same thing,” he said. The more robots that are out there, the more friendly the public is likely to be. The friendlier the public, the more likely there will be favorable legislation and infrastructure, he argues, noting that the industry cannot move forward without trial and error. “You have to make deliveries in order to learn,” he said.

While Chávez is hesitant to offer market predictions for the delivery sector as a whole, he is confident in the future of Kiwi.

“We are going to manufacture in Berkeley,” he said. “We have a lot of talent here. A lot of technology. And we want to base operations here.”

“We’re going to be here forever,” he said.

Update: This story was edited after publication to correct an error. We originally reported that Berkeley is two hours ahead of Bogotá, but it is two hours behind.

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Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.