No Tipping Necessary: Hundreds of Delivery Robots Are Coming to Los Angeles

Ben Bergman

Ben Bergman is the newsroom's senior finance reporter. Previously he was a senior business reporter and host at KPCC, a senior producer at Gimlet Media, a producer at NPR's Morning Edition, and produced two investigative documentaries for KCET. He has been a frequent on-air contributor to business coverage on NPR and Marketplace and has written for The New York Times and Columbia Journalism Review. Ben was a 2017-2018 Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Economic and Business Journalism at Columbia Business School. In his free time, he enjoys skiing, playing poker, and cheering on The Seattle Seahawks.

No Tipping Necessary: Hundreds of Delivery Robots Are Coming to Los Angeles

On a recent crisp winter morning outside an empty office park in the San Fernando Valley, there were no workers to be seen. That is unless one counts the cooler-sized delivery robot slowly whirring down the sidewalk as Felipe Chavez, founder and CEO of Kiwibot, nervously watched to make sure the droid did not veer of course.

Just as no one now thinks twice about seeing e-scooters that were non-existent before late 2017, the sight of a robot ferrying salads, pizza, or groceries could become common on Los Angeles sidewalks before this year is over.


Kiwibot has quietly been testing its robots – specially designed to look cute and non-threatening – for the past few weeks in the Valley, as well as more recently at a major university campus the company won't yet name. If all goes well, Kiwibot will begin offering delivery to students through as early as next month before expanding to Santa Monica and other parts of the city after that.

"L.A. is going to be our most important city this year," Chavez said. "In the first five months of the year we plan to employ 100 robots here in the city, and we expect that by the end of the year we're going to have around 400 robots deployed."

Kiwibot robot delivery

Postmates, which is now owned by Uber, has been testing a handful of delivery robots in West Hollywood since April. While those are accompanied by a human chaperone, the Kiwibot robots set out on their own, though operators take over remotely for more complex tasks like crossing the street.

Kiwibot has already made over 120,000 deliveries since 2017 during rollouts at University of California, Berkeley, University of Denver, and San Jose, where it partnered with Shopify and Ordermark. But L.A., with its vast geographic footprint, is a whole new degree of difficulty.

"It's a great challenge for us," said Chavez.

Kiwibot chose L.A. because the city already has a high adoption of food delivery, it is home to potential partners like ChowNow and Ordermark, and the city has been a willing collaborator through its Urban Movement Labs (UML), mostly by sharing data on city streets and sidewalks.

"We trust L.A. to be the best new market for us because the food delivery habit is already there, and we feel backed to scale in an organized and socially responsible and sustainable manner," said David Rodriguez, Kiwibot's head of business.

After a confrontational approach between cities and ridesharing and e-scooter companies, Lilly Shoup, UML's interim executive director, says L.A. is trying to be more collaborative with delivery robots.

"I think we've learned that it's important for city transportation agencies to get ahead of new technology before they appear on city streets," Shoup said. "It's important to understand their business models and proactively develop policies."

UML is also working on a pilot to deliver goods via drone by 2022 and in both instances Shoup says the technology can help reduce pollution and congestion since most deliveries now are made via cars.

"It's really exciting to think about new ways to reduce the environmental impact of delivery," Shoup said.

Robots substantially bring down the cost of delivery, which could help restaurants that operate on thin margins during even the best of times and have been devastated this year. But it will also mean fewer delivery jobs, most of which have been preserved as contract work in California with the recently passed Proposition 22.

Restaurants typically pay between 15% to 30% on orders placed with delivery services like Postmates or Grubhub and drivers are hardly getting rich. In fact, they often make less than minimum wage.

Kiwibot charges fees of a couple dollars on each order – which can be absorbed by the restaurant or passed onto customers. The company says its cost per delivery is now $2.98 but as it scales and the technology improves it can shave the cost down to $1.23 by the end of 2022.

Right now, Kiwibot robots – which cost between $2,500 and $4,000 each – can only operate in a 1.5 mile radius but the company's next generation can go eight miles and is large enough to fit a 12-inch pizza.

Kiwibot

Courtesy Kiwibot

Will the Public Accept Robots?

Even when the technology is ready, Kiwibot has what may be a tougher obstacle to overcome – public acceptance. Public safety commissioners in West Hollywood raised concerns about Postmates' robots and even in tech-friendly San Francisco, a city lawmaker, worried they might run into pedestrians, tried to ban them.

Kiwibot warns potential investors on its crowdfunding page: "Delivery bots have proved controversial in some regulatory environments with some cities, like San Francisco, putting out laws that make it difficult for us to deploy. If this became widespread we would have trouble going to market."

Chavez says he spends a great deal of time thinking about how he can get the public to be comfortable with robots.

"There is a sector of people that are concerned about robots and I think that it is very important to listen to them and to get their feedback on everything. but robots are going to happen," Chavez said.

The robot also has a sign affixed to the back to clarify that it is not recording any video, something that was added after homeless people in San Jose feared they were being spied on.

There is a "black box," which records in case of an emergency, but none of the devices have been stolen — so far.

Even though local regulations can allow for robots to go as fast as 10 mph, Chavez has found a speed of 6 mph makes people feel safer.

There are also important visual considerations. Kiwibot's robots look nothing like the hulking devices conjured up in sci-fi movies like "Transformers" or "The Terminator." They are more like a plastic cooler on wheels with lights on the front that resemble a smiling face.

"The new version is even more cute," said Chavez. "It's like a squirrel on a rock."

Taking a page from nature, the design is deliberately playful and small.

"When you see an animal and it is bigger than the width of your shoulders you feel threatened," Chavez said. "So we have made sure that the robot is never going to be wider [than you] so that people don't feel threatened."

Coronavirus has also been helpful, helping accelerate the adoption not only of delivery but also of robots – who you don't have to worry about coughing on you.

Competition with Bigger Robot Deliveries

Kiwibot, which is based in San Jose, has raised more than half $1 million from more than 650 investors in its latest crowdfunding campaign, to bring its fundraising total to over $3 million.

That pales in comparison to not only Uber but also much larger rivals Starship, a robot food delivery service launched in 2014 by two Skype co-founders that plans to rollout deliver to 100 universities by next summer and Nuro – an autonomous vehicle startup founded by two ex-Google engineers valued at $4 billion. The company received regulatory approval last week to operate on city streets in the Bay Area.

But with global autonomous last-mile delivery projected to grow from $11.16 billion next year to $76 billion by 2030, Kiwibot sees room for multiple competitors.

"In L.A. right now we are talking with multiple partners, very big companies," said Chavez.

"Everything is moving very fast," he added, as his robot inched along the sidewalk, heading back to the lab to continue more testing.

https://twitter.com/thebenbergman
ben@dot.la

Subscribe to our newsletter to catch every headline.

Cadence

Derek Jeter’s Sports Trading Card Company Brings in $10M

Kristin Snyder

Kristin Snyder is dot.LA's 2022/23 Editorial Fellow. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA's Daily Bruin.

sports trading cards
Arena Club /Andria Moore

Sports trading card platform Arena Club has raised $10 million in Series A funding.

Co-founded by CEO Brian Lee and Hall of Fame Yankees player Derek Jeter, Arena Club launched its digital showroom in September. Through the platform, sports fans can buy, sell, trade and display their card collections. Using computer vision and machine learning, Arena Club allows fans to grade and authenticate their cards, which can be stored in the company’s vault or delivered in protective “slabs.” Arena Club intends to use the new cash to expand these functions and scale its operations.

The new funding brings Arena Club’s total amount raised to $20 million. M13, defy.vc, Lightspeed Ventures, Elysian Park Ventures and BAM Ventures contributed to the round.

“Our team is thankful for the group of investors—led by M13, who see the bright future of the trading card hobby and our platform,” Lee said in a statement. “I have long admired M13 and the value they bring to early-stage startups.”

M13’s co-founder Courtney Reum, who formed the early-stage consumer technology venture firm in 2016 alongside his brother Carter Reum, will join Arena Club’s board. Reum has been eyeing the trading card space since 2020 when he began investing in what was once just a childhood hobby.

The sports trading card market surged in 2020 as fans turned to the hobby after the pandemic brought live events to a standstill. Since then, prices have come down, though demand remains high. And investors are still betting on trading card companies, with companies like Collectors bringing in $100 million earlier this year. Fanatics, which sells athletic collectibles and trading cards, reached a $31 billion valuation after raising $700 million earlier this week. On the blockchain, Tom Brady’s NFT company Autograph lets athletes sell digital collectibles directly to fans.

As for Arena Club, the company is looking to cement itself as a digital card show.

“Providing users with a digital card show allows us to use our first-class technology to give collectors from all over the world the luxury of being able to get the full trading card show experience at their fingertips,” Jeter said in a statement.

Is Airbnb’s New Push To Expand Short-Term Rentals Enough for Hosts To Combat LA’s City Policy?

Amrita Khalid
Amrita Khalid is a tech journalist based in Los Angeles, and has written for Quartz, The Daily Dot, Engadget, Inc. Magazine and number of other publications. She got her start in Washington, D.C., covering Congress for CQ-Roll Call. You can send tips or pitches to amrita@dot.la or reach out to her on Twitter at @askhalid.
LA house

L.A.’s lax enforcement of Airbnbs has led to an surge of illegal short-term rentals — even four years after the city passed a regulation to crack down on such practices. But what if hosts lived in a building that welcomed Airbnb guests and short-term rentals?

That’s the idea behind Airbnb’s new push to expand short-term rental offerings. The company is partnering with a number of corporate landlords that agreed to offer “Airbnb-friendly” apartment buildings, reported The Wall Street Journal last week. According to the report, the new service will feature more than 175 buildings managed by Equity Residential, Greystar Real Estate Partners LLC and 10 other companies that have agreed to clear more than 175 properties nationwide for short-term rentals.

But prospective hosts in Los Angeles who decide to rent apartments from Airbnb’s list of more than a dozen “friendly” buildings in the city likely won’t earn enough to break even due to a combination of high rents, taxes and city restrictions on short-term rentals. Rents on one-bedroom apartments in most of the partnered buildings listed soared well over $3,000 a month. Only a few studios were available under the $2,000 price range. If a host were to rent a one bedroom apartment with a monthly rent of $2,635 (which amounts to $31,656 annually), they would have to charge well over the $194 average price per night for Los Angeles (which amounts to $23,280 per year) according to analytics platform AllTheRooms.

Either way, residents who rent one of these Airbnb friendly apartments still have to apply for a permit through the City of Los Angeles in order to host on Airbnb.

“[..Airbnb-friendly buildings] seems like a good initiative. However, from a quick look, it seems that given the rent, Airbnb revenue wouldn’t be enough to cover all expenses if the host follows the city’s policy,” says Davide Proserpio, assistant professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business.

In addition, since L.A.’s 120-day cap on short-term rentals still applies to the buildings on Airbnb’s listing platform, that greatly limits the number of longer-term guests a resident can host. Not to mention, some of the buildings that Airbnb lists have even shorter limits – The Milano Lofts in DTLA for example only allows residents to host 90 nights a year.

Airbnb’s calculations of host earnings may be greatly misleading as well, given that the estimate doesn’t include host expenses, taxes, cleaning fees or individual building restrictions. For example, Airbnb estimates that a resident of a $3,699 one bedroom apartment at the Vinz in Hollywood that hosts 7 nights a month can expect $1,108 a month in revenue if they host year-round. But the Vinz only allows hosts to rent 90 days a year, which greatly limits the potential for subletters and a consistent income stream.

Keep in mind too that since the apartment will have to serve as the host’s “primary residence”, hosts will have to live there six months out of the year. All of which is to say, it’s unclear how renting an apartment in an “Airbnb-friendly” building makes hosting easier — especially in a city where illegal short-term rentals already seem to be the norm.

https://twitter.com/askhalid

The Streamys Reveals The Disconnect Between Online Creators and Traditional Media

Kristin Snyder

Kristin Snyder is dot.LA's 2022/23 Editorial Fellow. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA's Daily Bruin.

tiktok influencers around a trophy ​
Andria Moore /Charli D'Amelio/Addison Rae/JiDion

Every year, the Streamy Awards, which is considered the top award show within the creator economy, reveals which creators are capturing the largest audiences. This past Sunday, the event, held at The Beverly Hilton, highlighted some of the biggest names in the influencer game, chief among them Mr. Beast and Charli D’Amelio. It had all the trappings of a traditional award show—extravagant gowns, quippy acceptance speeches and musical interludes. But, as TikTok creator Adam Rose told The Washington Post, the Streamys still lacks the legitimacy of traditional award shows.

Read moreShow less
RELATEDEDITOR'S PICKS
LA TECH JOBS
interchangeLA
Trending