Delivery Bots, Drones Under the Microscope as CEOs Testify Before Congress

U.S. lawmakers reached out to the CEOs of several delivery companies, who went before Congress recently to explain what the advent of robots and drones could mean for employment and safety.

Their testimonies will provide some useful insight into how key business figures are practically applying cutting edge technology and whether they still see a role for humans in an increasingly automated world.

Postmates CEO Bastian Lehman is optimistic. He explained in written testimony ahead of the hearings how robots could complement human functions to optimize services and ultimately improve conditions for workers.

“This need not be a terrifying exercise that evokes imagery of the Terminator or a world in which an entire labor force gets displaced,” Lehman said.

“The right question isn’t which jobs are going to be replaced, but rather, what work will be redefined, and how?”

Collaboration between robotics and humans in manufacturing is indeed beginning to gain steam. “The people are always going to be there in one way or another,” said to David Mindell, an author and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In January, Postmates partnered with food delivery outfit DoorDash and self-driving company Starship Technologies to test deliveries by “sidewalk class” robots.

When working out how to apply such technology, Lehman said CEOs more generally need to cut through the hype around automation and pinpoint how it will specifically affect their business. “The right question isn’t which jobs are going to be replaced, but rather, what work will be redefined, and how?” he wrote, quoting the Harvard Business Review.

In Postmates’ case, the joint venture found that robots could help fill a specific gap: short-distance deliveries that human workers were often reluctant to take, since tips and charges are often based off distance traveled. The same thinking could be applied, for example, to cab drivers, who may be reluctant to pick up passengers who only need to travel a couple of blocks.

“Commerce across a given town is able to move at even higher rates, with more functional ways to make deliveries in a given city,” Lehman said. “In the long-term, this could ultimately help drive down the overall cost of delivery, as the supply of couriers increases.”

Still, Lehman acknowledged that he doesn’t yet have all the answers, which is why he planned to argue that experiments like the joint venture’s delivery-testing program are crucial to collect data and gain an understanding of their impacts.

And while human couriers will still be needed, he also was adamant that lawmakers must advance a budget that advances so-called STEM education, given the extra job opportunities that will be created by dispatching robotic couriers.

“To win the future, we must create an all-hands-on-deck approach to science, technology, engineering, and math,” he said. “We need to make this a priority to train an army of new teachers in these subject areas, and to make sure that all of us as a country are lifting these subjects for the respect that they deserve.”

Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International CEO Brian Wynne and Flirty Chief Evangelist Shyam Chidamber also were scheduled to testify.

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Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

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