Robot deliveries will be seen throughout town as soon as next month after Council voted to increase the operation area of delivery robots citywide.
“If you remember, last summer, a company called COCO started operating remote-controlled, delivery robots for goods and food delivery services in the city. At the time, and still today, the City did not have a regulatory structure or a specific permit for these types of delivery services — be they autonomous remote-controlled,” Senior Transportation Planner Kyle Kozar said, noting the lack of knowledge led Council to place a moratorium on autonomous delivery robots last October. However, Council directed staff to allow remote control delivery robots to operate as part of the Zero Emission Delivery Zone pilot program, which launched in January of this year, to test and understand these new services.
Kozar said the robots and Zero Emission Delivery Zone Pilot Program have helped provide economic opportunity to small businesses and individuals in the zone, which stretches from the city’s southern border at Dewey Street to Wilshire Boulevard, and from the ocean eastward to Lincoln Boulevard. He noted there are currently two companies operating in the city but a third is expected to join them soon after recently receiving approval.
When the robots are allowed to expand citywide 30 days from Council approval, regulations will remain similar to the guidelines outlined in the Zero Emissions Delivery Zone, meaning delivery bots must be controlled by a human at all times, obey traffic laws and speed limits, share operational data and report incidents.
Like the previous iteration of council that initially approved the Zero Emission Delivery Zone, Councilmember Christine Parra asked if any robots in the pilot program had been involved in accidents or if residents have expressed concerns about them traveling around town. But staff said the City hasn’t received any complaints or notices of incidents or accidents.
Councilmember Kevin McKeown, who was one of the councilmembers who was hesitant about the safety aspect of the bots, said he’s excited about the increased opportunities.
“I was a bit skeptical when this came up a couple weeks ago because we did this as a pilot for a reason; we wanted to assess the safety and the public reaction,” McKeown said. “And I’m very much swayed by the fact that the safety record appears to be impeccable. And tonight and generally, I haven’t heard a bad word about this service.”
Hunter Hall, who is an active restaurant consultant throughout Southern California, agreed with Council’s decision Tuesday when he cited how the restaurant industry has suffered miserable losses over the last year.
“And it is desperately in need of new innovative solutions like COCO and other robot delivery options,” Hall said. “The third-party delivery companies like Uber Eats, DoorDash and others have really cannibalized the restaurant industry over the last several years. It’s not a sustainable model and it doesn’t actually help restaurants. Companies like COCO are great options. They hire locally. They’re innovative. They’re clean and they’re fun! Let’s face it, who doesn’t like seeing a cute little robot going down the street. It gives Santa Monica an edge…”
Councilmember Phil Brock said he also loves the technology and the idea but he remains somewhat concerned that delivery drivers, who are still recovering from the pandemic as well and used deliveries as a second or third form of income.
“I’m still concerned that many delivery drivers may lose their jobs and their livelihoods when they’re trying to make a comeback, so that concerns me,” Brock said, adding, “I would hope that Coco will do their best to hire some of the newly displaced delivery drivers that they are helping displace.”