Entrepreneurs, take note: If you want to pitch the Menlo Park City Council on something newfangled, it can't hurt to sweeten your presentation with a box of treats from a Menlo Park bakery.
That's what happened at a presentation by Starship Technologies during the council's Oct. 25 meeting, while the company pitched council members on a pilot program to operate a fleet of delivery robots in town.
Starship Technologies spokesperson Henry Harris-Burland showed video footage of a robot resembling a wheeled cooler rolling through the sidewalks of downtown Menlo Park, changing direction quickly to avoid obstacles. After the video presentation ended, the robot, roughly the size of a medium dog, wheeled into the council chambers at a leisurely maximum speed of 4 miles per hour, before it was unlocked to reveal goodies from Mademoiselle Colette.
Mr. Harris-Burland told the council Menlo Park could be the company's second U.S. city to be part of a nine- to 12-month pilot program of its mobile delivery robots. The first U.S. city signed on is Washington, D.C.
According to Allan Martinson, the company's chief operating officer, the robot is also being debuted at city meetings in San Carlos, Redwood City and Sunnyvale. Due to its situation in Silicon Valley, Menlo Park is a "natural place to start," he said. Plus, according to their testing, the robot works best in areas where the population is less dense, so the robot faces fewer complex traffic and pedestrian situations.
According to Mr. Harris-Burland, the company has tested the robot over more than 11,000 miles of sidewalks across the world, and noted that three-quarters of people who see the robot don't respond to it at all.
The robot is mostly autonomous, but is operated by people in situations that are more complex, such as while crossing the street.
During the pilot, a person would accompany the robot wherever it goes. The robot would show up on the doorstep at a specified time, and then the customer would unlock it using an app, and retrieve the delivered parcel.
Such machines aren't subject to much regulation yet, Mr. Martinson said, but because they travel on sidewalks, and cities own sidewalks, the company is seeking approval from city councils of areas it operates in. Because Menlo Park doesn't have sidewalks in all areas, the pilot wouldn't be implemented everywhere in the city.
The idea would be for Menlo Park to be assigned a fleet of 20 to 25 such robots, operated by Starship Technologies, to act as a "taxi service for things," in the words of Mr. Martinson. The robots wouldn't be for sale, but local businesses could use them to provide "on-demand" delivery services to their customers.
Library deliveries or Meals on Wheels were also mentioned during the meeting as potential uses for the robots.
Mr. Harris-Burland said the robot is equipped with an alarm system and a GPS system that could allow the police to track it, allaying concerns that the robot or its cargo could get stolen.
Debora Ferrand, owner of Mademoiselle Colette, spoke to the council in favor of the robots. She said they would allow her to make deliveries to her customers, perhaps for free if they spend a certain amount. Using the robot, delivery costs would drop from $1 to $3 per delivery, making it cheaper for customers than other services such as Doordash, which can charge around $4 to $6 for local food deliveries.
"This kind of thing can be super helpful," she said. "I hope it goes through."
After hearing the presentation, the council seemed receptive to the delivery robots and recommended the company work with staff to iron out more details about how a pilot program might be implemented, following another discussion with the council about specific policies.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the company as Starship Industries, not Starship Technologies.