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Turns Out the LA Robot Delivery Revolution Hasn’t Arrived Yet

Everyone’s seen those cute little robots delivering food around town, but will they replace human jobs?

On a Saturday afternoon at the intersection of Cahuenga and Hollywood Boulevards, Nyla, a food delivery robot, waits placidly to cross the street. The walk sign flashes, but the robot stays in the middle of the sidewalk as people pushing strollers and riding mobility scooters make their way around it, a little island in the river of Hollywood’s human bustle.

Nyla eventually jerks to life and makes good time down Hollywood before turning left on Highland. It takes another left on Sunset, navigating down a bottleneck caused by a row of tents, and finally pulls over outside of Luv2Eat Thai Bistro. It’s taken about 35 minutes to make the half-mile trip, but the small screen on its lid lights up with the words, “On Delivery.”

In the last few years, Los Angeles’s streets have served as a test course for autonomous and remote-operated electric vehicles delivering food and other goods on short routes. Tech companies like Coco and Serve Robotics tout positive delivery ratings in the LA market while eyeing national expansion. Automated food delivery has the potential to disrupt the city’s gig economy in ways that could impact earnings for delivery drivers. Restaurant owners, meanwhile, are still uncertain that robot delivery will actually deliver new revenue streams and improvements to operations.

Nyla is operated by Serve Robotics, a company that piloted robot delivery in LA in 2018 and contracts exclusively to UberEats and Postmates. The company made a PR-fueled splash in Hollywood in 2019 in support of a Postmates IPO that never materialized, and has quietly expanded to other neighborhoods since. Though Serve promises that its robots can reduce street congestion by taking car-based deliveries off the road, the company’s AI-driven bots are still prone to clogging up Hollywood Boulevard or freezing at intersections, according to some residents and delivery drivers.

While Serve Robotics bots drive autonomously, Coco robots are controlled manually by a team of remote drivers wielding Xbox controllers, which merchant success manager Logan Doub describes as more pedestrian-friendly. “We think of ourselves as the least important pedestrian,” Doub says. At Coco’s Santa Monica offices, a screen displays a robot-level view of Broadway, stitched together in a fractured panorama from the bot’s five embedded cameras. As Doub uses his controller to turn the robot down Main Street, a woman crouches with her phone to take a picture. Coco staff say pedestrians don’t often stop to interact with the bots, but TikTok would lead folks to believe otherwise.

While UberEats and Postmates automatically assign Serve robots to restaurants, Coco seeks out and works directly with merchant partners that the team thinks will have success with robot delivery, with the ultimate goal of creating a variety of cuisines and mealtime service hours across its app. Coco also works closely with LADOT, canvassing neighborhood councils and local leaders with a message of less congestion and more environmentally friendly delivery.

Colorful illustration of a delivery robot in the open with a stop sign to the right.

Uber Eats states that more than 200 restaurants in LA are now enrolled in its robot program, and that the service improves the efficiency of short distance delivery. At Mel’s Drive-In on Highland, the UberEats app beeps loudly to alert manager Jose Chavez when a robot is ready to pick up. Although a staffer has to run the food out to the sidewalk, the robot serves to cut down on cars pulling in and out of the restaurant’s small parking lot. The commission restaurants pay to UberEats remains the same whether the food is delivered by a human or a bot, though customers whose orders are delivered by a robot will have their tip refunded. Despite their prevalence on Highland Avenue, Chavez says that only a small number of the restaurant’s UberEats or Postmates orders are serviced by delivery robots, with a majority still made by human drivers. The robotic service has so far made no immediately appreciable difference to sales or workflow.

Rita Huma of Indian restaurant Rita’s Gate has been in business in Santa Monica for 30 years, and signed on as one of Coco’s first merchants. Coco’s 15 percent commission rate beats the fees taken by Doordash or UberEats, and robot delivery service saves her husband and son from having to make deliveries by car. “We have less problems with the robots than we do with delivery drivers missing deliveries or eating our food,” she says.

While Coco employs remote drivers, robot techs, and customer care specialists locally, it has also begun outsourcing remote drivers and other labor internationally ahead of global expansion. Coco declined to say how many robots on LA streets were being driven by overseas employees, or in which countries those employees were located.

Many gig workers have found a niche taking the short distance deliveries that robot delivery companies seek to replace. During busy hours at the Chick-fil-A on Highland and Sunset, drivers on specially rigged scooters and bicycles designed to beat Hollywood traffic gather around the pickup window. Raul Torres, who delivers with Doordash, Grubhub, and UberEats, drives a white scooter with a large cooler fastened to the back. He focuses on small radius deliveries in Hollywood and Koreatown. “I only get about 50 cents a mile from the delivery companies, so what really makes me money are the tips,” he says.

Shooting for shorter-distance pickups allows Torres to complete more trips and increase his tip pool. He’s not immediately concerned about robots cutting into his bottom line. “There are so many deliveries to be made. You couldn’t have that many robots on the sidewalks. I think it would be a problem,” he says.

While tech companies rush to bring functional AI and robotics to the market, and it remains unclear exactly how these technologies will affect the way people deliver and receive food, LA’s restaurants continue to adapt. Back at Luv2Eat Thai, manager Max Cam places an order of shrimp pad thai into Nyla’s temperature-controlled bay. “I’ve never had any problems with robots. No spills, no mixed-up orders, and they don’t have bad attitudes,” he says. But he doesn’t see the robots drastically changing the restaurant’s operations or customer experience anytime soon. On a busy Saturday night, and a full dining room, drivers queue to pick up from a table full of brown-bagged orders. Cam hurries back inside while Nyla pulls out and trundles down the sidewalk.