Refraction AI in Ann Arbor has developed an autonomous delivery robot they have named the Rev1. Watch as it makes a lunch delivery.
Detroit Free Press
Some people ask Chris Long If the small, silver vehicle trundling about the streets of Ann Arbor these days has a small child in it or perhaps a dog.
No, he assures them. The three-wheeled silver box is not carrying his toddler or pet.
What it is carrying is someone’s lunch.
The vehicle, called the REV-1, is an autonomous robot developed by Refraction AI, an Ann Arbor startup founded in July 2019 by University of Michigan engineering faculty members Matthew Johnson-Roberson and Ram Vasudevan.
Refraction, with 15 employees, launched a pilot food delivery program using the robot in January. The pilot started with four restaurants and a few hundred participants who signed up on Refraction’s website.
For now, Long, a safety operator for Refraction, or another employee follows the robot, which can travel at speeds of up to about 15 mph, on a bike. That’s just to make sure it doesn’t run into trouble, but Long says there’s been very little of that, though it does generate a lot of curiosity around town.
“Most people are like, ‘What is that?’ ” said Long, a 28-year-old Ann Arbor resident. Really young kids always seem to know that it’s a robot right away, he said. “Or they think it’s a spaceship.”
Eventually, no bike escort will be needed, but a Refraction employee will always be watching remotely to help with things like four-way stops and unprotected left turns, although Johnson-Roberson says they try to avoid those for the most part.
Rex Roof, 44, of Ann Arbor, who works for Blue Newt Software in downtown Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Market and Shops, recently tried the service. Using the company’s app, he and two colleagues ordered sandwiches from Belly Deli on North University Avenue in Ann Arbor on a weekday morning.
A few blocks away, at the Refraction offices on West Washington Street, Refraction employees prepared to send the REV-1, which stands about 5 feet tall, on its way to pick up Roof’s order. The robot rolled out of the alley and made a right turn on Washington Street, starting its journey of a little more than a mile to the restaurant to pick up the order. Long hopped on his bike and followed.
In a few minutes, the robot arrived at the restaurant. An employee brought the order out and, lifting a hatch on one side of the robot, put the food in an insulated container inside. Then, the REV-1 headed off again, back toward downtown to deliver the order. When it arrived at its destination, the Blue Newt employees got a text message on one of their phones giving them a code to enter on a screen on the side of the REV-1. That unlocked the hatch, giving them access to their order.
Roof said he doesn’t often order food for delivery since he works in the near-downtown area and there are so many food options close by, but, he said, “We like Belly Deli, and we wanted to check it out.”
He was happy with the experience. The food arrived on time and was still hot, he said.
The REV-1 is outfitted with GPS, 12 cameras and sensors that let it navigate its environment, hugging the right side of the roadway, either in the bike lane or on the right edge traffic lane.
Johnson-Roberson and Vasudevan launched their company with the goal of creating a sustainable way to do autonomous food delivery in cities with vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and rain and snow. That’s what distinguishes Refraction AI and the REV-1 robot from other companies trying autonomous delivery, said Johnson-Roberson, the company’s CEO.
San Francisco-based Starship Technologies has small robots delivering food on several campuses, and Mountain View, California-based Nuro has a pilot grocery delivery service in Houston. It previously ran a pilot program in Scottsdale, Arizona. Johnson-Roberson said Nuro, which delivers groceries in vehicles the size of a small car, is perfect for suburban areas, and Starship’s small robots are great for campuses where they can operate on sidewalks. He’s aiming to solve the delivery problem in dense urban areas, where parking can be difficult, and sidewalks are full of pedestrians.
Unlike small robots, the REV-1 operates on the street, so it doesn’t add to sidewalk congestion, and Johnson-Roberson noted, at about 100 pounds, it’s much less of a threat to pedestrians than cars if there’s a malfunction or accident. “If something weighs 5,000 pounds, and it runs into you, it’s going to be a really bad day,“ he said.
Autonomous delivery also has advantages over delivery by humans in regular cars, he said. First of all, it’s cheaper. Johnson-Roberson said delivery services like DoorDash and Grubhub cost restaurants about 30% of an order total. For consumers, the cost of those delivery services is usually $3 to $5 plus tip, he said. Refraction is charging restaurants 10% to 15% and charging consumers $3.
Also, he said restaurants and consumers aren’t always happy with the live human delivery experience. Drivers may arrive before an order is ready and have to wait around in the restaurant, perhaps getting in the way of employees or customers. In urban areas where parking is a problem, consumers often have to come outside to pick up the food, just as they do with the robot, but at least this way they know right where it is and what exactly to look for.
Then there’s the environmental factor. “We want to figure out a way of making this a sustainable thing,” Johnson-Roberson said. “It does not make any sense to use a full-size SUV to carry one order of McDonald’s.”
Johnson-Roberson admits that autonomous delivery eliminates jobs, but he argues delivery-driver jobs aren’t viable anyway. “They end up so low paying that people quit. We think that the right way to have sustainable jobs in that sector is to have full-time jobs.” He said Refraction has hired several people who had been working as drivers.
The REV-1’s shell is manufactured at Roush Industries in Livonia. Refraction has venture capital backing from E-Lab in Ann Arbor and Trucks Venture Capital in San Francisco. Each robot costs about $4,000.
Johnson-Roberson, who’s 36 and lives in downtown Ann Arbor, has an impressive resume. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University and a doctorate from the University of Sydney. His work in autonomous vehicles dates to 2004 and the first DARPA Grand Challenge, a race for self-driving vehicles in the Mojave Desert. He got an appointment at the University of Michigan at age 29.
The company has seven robots that are operational and expects to have two more coming online in the next couple of weeks. Each robot can do from five to eight deliveries each day. Johnson-Roberson hopes to eventually have about 30 operating in Ann Arbor, where they can deliver pretty much anywhere within the zone ringed by the freeways around the city.
Johnson-Roberson plans to expand to a couple of other cities within six months. Palo Alto, California, is likely the next location, he said. He expects other restaurants besides the initial four — Belly Deli, Miss Kim, Chow Asian Street Food and Tios Mexican Café — will soon be accepting orders in Ann Arbor. The company also hopes to eventually expand beyond lunch deliveries.
David Joh-Mueller, co-owner of Belly Deli, said he’s pleased with the restaurant’s experience in the pilot so far.
“I’m just really interested in technology and it’s something new and exciting,” he said. “I think it’s good to have these smaller electric vehicles rather than having a car to transport a food item across town.”