James Hayes is on his way to a gym near the University of Memphis when he first spots...it —slowly cruising towards him on the sidewalk.
“[It] reminds me of the Jetsons,” Hayes says, a bit puzzled by the motorized device that rolls off in the opposite direction.
Hayes initially mistook the white cargo box perched on six wheels for a cooler. Just over four feet tall, with dual headlights and a front-mounted computer screen, it’s not your average pedestrian—if you can call it that.
It’s an autonomous robot.
“I know it’s remote control, right?” Hayes asks a few FedEx employees trailing the bot.
David Kassen, Vice President of Transportation for FedEx, explains the robot drives itself but can also be controlled remotely and make deliveries.
Hayes' next question: "How much does it cost...?"
Kassen can't answer that quite yet. FedEx is in the middle of beta testing the battery-powered bot called “Roxo.”
It’s still a prototype; Roxo has yet to make any actual deliveries.
“Roxo's in training is what we like to say,” Kassen says. “We have a lot of ways we think it’s going to react, so we want to get that on the road and see how it learns in the wild.”
For the past two weeks, the “wild” has been a couple of short, predetermined routes in Downtown and East Memphis.
On a recent testing day, Roxo appears to know exactly what to do when it comes time to cross a street.
“You can see there now, it’s moving itself into a mode where it knows the terrain might be a little bit more rough,” Kassen says.
Roxo can adjust its wheel base and lift itself up for more stability, almost resembling an introductory-level Mars rover.
Kassen is accompanied by a few others, including a team of engineers and software developers from the DEKA Research and Development Corporation, the group that’s partnered with FedEx to create the bot. During trials, the engineers chaperone Roxo at all times, noting when it has trouble navigating uneven sidewalks or busy intersections.
The robot is supposed to avoid obstacles using a built-in combination of artificial intelligence, sensors and cameras. But sometimes, even a stray trash bin or a narrow passage can short-circuit the mission.
“It got stuck, and it asked for help,” says DEKA software developer Elyza Acosta.
A remote teleoperator is always connected, and can take over if Roxo needs assistance. But the ultimate goal is to get the bot to take care of itself.
Gloria Boyland, corporate vice president of operations and service support at FedEx, says the company is embracing this technology to lower costs for what’s known as the “last mile.”
“That last trip between the FedEx location and your door is the most complex,” says Boyland. “And one of the most expensive legs.”
The vision, she says, is to use Roxo for more immediate deliveries, such as pizza, medication or auto parts.
“It will be from the retailer—click, online sale—right to your home door,” she says.
Boyland and Kassen say so far Roxo has been met with curiosity and excitement since its public rollout on Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show last February.
They like to point out that the bot’s zero-emission design has an environmental advantage over cars.
At the same time, there are worries that innovations like Roxo could affect people’s livelihoods. One report from the Brookings Institute think tank estimates that 25 percent of the labor force have a job that could become mostly automated in the next few decades.
Boyland says she understands the concern but says robots could also generate new types of jobs.
“You’ll have machinists, you'll have mechanics who need to repair the bot, etc.,” she says.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland recently thanked FedEx for choosing to test Roxo in its hometown at a ceremony in City Hall. He says Tennessee’s community colleges and tech schools are already adapting to meet the demands of new technologies.
“We have the educational infrastructure to be able to support the workforce as they evolve along with the technology.”
There’s also another practical question: do people want to share their sidewalks with robots?
The mayor says public safety is important to consider, but that Roxo “doesn’t take up that much space, and it’s not traveling so fast that you have to swerve out of the way of it.”
“People are going to adjust to the new technology,” he adds.
This adjustment may not be harmonious for everyone, says researcher Jodi Forlizzi, who directs Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. People see robots in different ways, she says.
Some are excited; they want to interact with or relate to them. To others, robots are strictly utilitarian. Then, there are also the people who just don’t trust a robot, “and don’t want to interact with it at all,” Forlizzi says.
“It’s going to be terrifying for some. Others will want to test it,” she says. “Others will want to try and break it. Other people will be fine with it.”
How social norms around robots evolve may depend on exposure, which is why FedEx is getting Roxo on the streets. The next round of testing is in two Texas cities, Frisco and Plano.
The company doesn't know when Roxo will go fully autonomous, Kassen says, but he’s more certain that “people recognize it’s the wave of the future.”