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Is the public really ready to accept robots as the new normal?

30 November 2023

Image courtesy of Northwestern University
Image courtesy of Northwestern University

As major players like Amazon and Walmart invest heavily in drone delivery services, a new study reveals that consumers are more inclined to accept deliveries by automated vehicles than by drones or robots.

With Amazon aiming to make 10,000 deliveries with drones in Europe this year and Walmart planning to expand its drone delivery services to an additional 60,000 homes this year in the US, companies are investing more research and development funding into drone delivery.

But are consumers ready to accept this change as the new normal?

Northwestern University's Mobility and Behavior Lab, led by Amanda Stathopoulos, an Associate Professor of civil and environmental engineering, wanted to know if consumers were ready for robots to replace delivery drivers, in the form of automated vehicles, drones and robots. 

The team found that societally, there's work to do to shift public perceptions of the near-future technology.

"We need to think really carefully about the effect of these new technologies on people and communities, and to tune in to what they think about these changes," Stathopoulos, the study's senior author, said.

Researchers noted a "complex and multifaceted" relationship between behaviour and acceptance of near-future technologies for automated parcel delivery.

While people were generally more willing to accept an automated vehicle as a substitute for a delivery person – perhaps because there already is familiarity with self-driving cars – people disliked drones and robots as options. 

However, as delivery speed increased and price decreased, the likelihood of accepting the technology increased.

They also found that tech-savvy consumers were more accepting of the near-future technologies than populations less familiar with the technology.

"There's a paradox: we're having a hard time reconciling the convenience and the benefit of getting speedy, efficient delivery with its consequences, like poor labour conditions in warehouses, air pollution and congested streets," Stathopoulos said. 

"We don't really see that other role that we play as citizens or as users of the city. And one role is directly affecting the other role, and we are both. With automated delivery, we could reduce some of these issues."

The team designed a survey to assess the preferences of 692 US respondents, asking questions about different delivery options and variables like delivery speed, package handling and general perceptions.

Stathopoulos said that while new modes of delivery present an exciting opportunity, societally, "we're not there just yet".

As companies ramp up drone deliveries, due in part to labour shortages and in part because existing systems cannot satisfy the sheer volume of e-commerce deliveries, the researchers caution that these innovations may fail because of a lack of public acceptance.

Stathopoulos said she thinks shipping and logistics centres should be placed at the "front and centre" of city planning and design in the US, as in some European cities, to recognise their importance and role in quality of life. 

Policymakers will also need to become part of the conversation as more drones enter the airspace and labour shifts. None of this will work, Stathopoulos argued, until companies begin to consolidate their unique systems.

"On the planning side, we need to make sure that we embrace the fact that the massive [number] of deliveries is going to shape our cities," Stathopoulos said. 

"Collaboration, coordination, and information sharing between companies has been a running challenge – but it's not going to work if everyone has their own technology. It just destroys the purpose and builds redundant and overlapping systems."

However, by listening to and conducting more frequent assessments of user acceptance of technologies, Stathopoulos argues that policymakers and companies can prepare for the future and work to overcome anxiety and reluctance to accept new technologies.

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