BEDFORD, England (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – British shoppers looked on in amazement and happiness as a supermarket worker made a presentation of groceries to the newest member of the team – delivery robots.
“where are you going?” A passerby asked a white robot that looked like a mini-fridge on wheels. Another person stopped to wave goodbye as he set off to deliver an order to a customer’s door in Bedford, central England.
“Robots are not going to be a thing of the future, they are a thing of the moment,” said Andrew Curtis, UK COO of Starship Technologies, the world’s largest maker of delivery robots.
300 self-driving robots from the Estonian robotics company were launched in Britain in 2018 and around 1,000 deliveries are taking place in the country every day.
Increasing numbers of delivery robots – from sidewalk driving capsules to drones – are being deployed in urban areas, augmented with great interest during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Robotics companies like Starship, which is headquartered in the US, say they are creating new jobs and that electric robots are greener than cars or trucks.
But courier unions fear they bring the risk of job losses and worsening conditions for delivery passengers and drivers.
“Delivery companies are already treating their workers like robots, so it is no surprise that they are showing a growing interest in automation,” said Ahmed Uhuru Hafezi, of the Transport Companies chapter of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB).
“Instead of spending money on new technologies, companies should consult with workers and their unions to ensure that automation does not lead to job losses or burden us with additional responsibilities in an already demanding job.”
Delivery robots are expected to generate about $670 million in global revenue by 2030 — up from $70 million in 2022 — according to ABI Research, a global technology analytics company.
Starship Technologies said global deliveries tripled in 2021 — 1,700 self-driving robots made 3 million trips across countries such as the United States, Finland, Germany and Estonia.
Its robots are pre-programmed with a delivery route, travel along sidewalks and use cameras and sensors to cross roads and avoid obstacles.
If the Starship robot fails, Curtis said, remote human operators in Estonia can control it and set it on the right track.
FedEx, Amazon, Uber and others have also rolled out dock-based delivery bots — although Amazon said in October that it had halted live trials of its Scout delivery bot because it did not fully meet customer needs.
Uber is experimenting with the use of drone cars for deliveries, while parent company Google Alphabet Inc and Amazon have launched deliveries using drones.
Many programs are small-scale trials or pilot programs and are based largely on urban and university campuses in the United States.
Moves toward automation have raised concerns among delivery drivers and couriers in the gig economy, many of whom say they are already facing — and campaigning against — low salaries, onerous targets and poor working conditions.
“If they can get away with replacing everyone with robots, it makes their lives a lot easier because they won’t have any (employee) responsibilities,” said Yassin Aslam, head of the UK App Drivers and Delivery Companies Consortium (ADCU). .
“What will happen to all these workers? Where are they going?”
But Curtis, president of Starship, said robots could benefit society as they can take on some of the menial, low-paid tasks currently performed by vacant job workers — and create new jobs for the humans who run them.
“Some of the big competitors who use courier drivers, they don’t give workers their rights, and they don’t treat their employees very well,” he said.
“That’s why we think robotics is the way forward.”
He believes that robots will work alongside human couriers, especially in cities where roads are often too complex for a robot to navigate. Spacecraft robots are also limited to making deliveries within a three-mile (five kilometer) radius.
“We’re creating jobs,” Curtis said.
“We’ve created almost an entire sector that didn’t exist before,” he said, referring to custom packaging jobs in supermarkets and emerging engineering or robotics roles.
Amazon spokesperson F Zammit said the online retailer is also working to boost jobs and is committed to investing in both robotics and improving workers’ rights.
He said Amazon has invested $7 billion over the past four years in driver training, safety technology, and raising wage rates for its workers.
The e-commerce giant has been resisting efforts to unite its workforce while labor activists are making headway.
Workers at Amazon’s New York warehouse voted in April to form the company’s first union branch in the United States. Amazon disputed this finding.
Amazon has long been the focus of unions whose productivity quotas and above-average warehouse injury rates are a threat to workers.
Amazon says it offers great benefits and pay, that its goal setting is fair and it invests heavily in security.
As unions and companies debate the impact of robots on workers’ rights and conditions, there are questions about whether self-driving vehicles will ever reach full autonomy.
The head of GM’s Cruise business told Reuters last month that he believes human supervisors may never be phased out from cars, as they offer reassurance to users.
“They are making self-driving vehicles because they want to get rid of workers, but they can’t,” said Matthew Cole, a researcher on temporary work at the Oxford Internet Institute in Britain.
“They need workers.”
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