A new workforce has been ferrying goods between downtown Mountain View businesses and residents during the county's stay at home order, and they don't even need masks or gloves to stay safe.
San Francisco-based Starship Technologies is deploying its fleet of autonomous delivery robots to pick up goods from at least six businesses and deliver to residents in the surrounding area. The sleek six-wheeled, black-and-white bots have been navigating the city sidewalks alongside pedestrians to make deliveries at a time when sales have plunged for downtown restaurants and retail shops.
Though city staff cleared the way for Starship to operate in Mountain View weeks ago, the Mountain View City Council voted on May 5 to formally allow Starship to launch its commercial service on city streets, effectively reviving the city's delivery device pilot program. Under the city's rules, no more than 10 bots can make deliveries at any one time, and each company has to seek approval to operate for a maximum of nine months.
It isn't the first time automatons have circulated on and around Castro Street, with a similar program launched by Google last year. The company ran a three-month pilot in which residents in the greater downtown area could return books and library materials to the Mountain View Library using delivery robots. The pilot ran into "no issues," according to city staff.
The bots came back in response to the new coronavirus, which has forced residents to stay home and for businesses to either shutter or operate on a drastically reduced scale. Though restaurants and some retail businesses have largely turned to delivery services to survive, it comes with safety concerns and a growing appetite for "contactless" deliveries to prevent the spread of the virus.
Henry Harris-Burland, Starship's marketing vice president, said the robots can provide no-contact food from grocery stores and restaurants to people who are stuck at home -- particularly the elderly and other vulnerable populations most at risk. The bots used to be seen as a convenience, he said, but now they're seen as essential.
"The community is asking us to expand quickly, and has been sharing their stories with us of how helpful the robots have been during this time," Harris-Burland said.
Local businesses are struggling during the shelter order, particularly restaurants fighting for federal relief. At least six businesses -- Ava's Market, Umai Sushi, Vitality Bowl, Doppio Zero, Crepevine and St. Stephens Green -- have turned to Starship for help, and will be using the company's bots to deliver food to downtown residents.
Residents in the greater downtown area, bounded by El Camino Real, West Evelyn Avenue, Calderon Avenue and Shoreline Boulevard, are able to use to use Starship's mobile app to place and receive orders from participating businesses. Customers can unlock the lid and take out their orders, and Starship is reportedly taking steps to ensure the bots themselves stick to sanitary guidelines between deliveries.
Delivery bots are outfitted with cameras and sensors to roll along city sidewalks and stop at driveways and crosswalks, while also navigating foot traffic along their path. Though council members swiftly agreed to approve the Starship service last week, Councilwoman Alison Hicks said she had some reservations about robots taking up sidewalks meant for people.
"While I think it's fabulous, I want to make sure that sidewalks continue to work well for pedestrians, runners and people in wheelchairs," she said.
City officials said they signed an agreement with Starship using its authority granted under the city's coronavirus emergency declaration, allowing the business to operate before the council's approval. The company had previously used its delivery bots on private property in Mountain View -- specifically the Intuit campus in North Bayshore -- which did not require city approval.