December 13, 2021

Why Delivery Robots Shouldn't Copy Scooters

Shared scooters are an impressive example of how to rapidly scale a hardware service. They are also a notorious case of disposable design—early scooters were often used for less than a month before they were thrown out and replaced. Delivery robots are aiming to scale as rapidly as scooters, but the industry cannot afford for them to be designed like a disposable toy. We believe they need to be designed as a commercial vehicle.

Commercial vehicles are specific kinds of road vehicles that focus on two major traits that businesses care about: reliability and serviceability. These qualities directly influence the affordability of a vehicle and determine whether it is a worthwhile asset or a losing investment. This post will pass on some of our knowledge of why the robotic delivery industry must demand a new kind of commercial vehicle.

Reliability and Serviceability are Complicated

For a business operating a fleet of vehicles, every hour a vehicle is being worked on is an hour it’s not making money. The two fundamental factors that affect this downtime are reliability—how frequently a vehicle breaks down—and serviceability—how easy it is to work on a vehicle. Both are essential to the profitability of any fleet operator, but they may not be a priority for all manufacturers.

As manufacturers sell more product, they become more incentivized to trade cents during manufacturing for dollars during service when they aren’t the ones maintaining a fleet.

Specializing is Essential

A reliable vehicle needs dedicated testing to validate that a design can survive the real world. Live testing is useful, but it can only go so far before it needs to be supplemented with scientific testing that provides repeatable analysis of different designs. These lab tests require identifying the root cause of a real-world failure and translating it to a design requirement, which requires as much engineering effort as designing the platform. This essential work is often neglected for consumer products that are only lightly used before being thrown out, but businesses need that investment when the product is built to last for years.

A challenge for vehicle manufacturers is determining when failures are tolerable. The vibrations of normal driving can’t cause problems while a collision with a larger vehicle can, but where to draw the line between the two is a critical question to answer. Missing the mark too much in either direction causes a fleet operator’s expenses to reach unsustainable levels—too unreliable and vehicles are under maintenance more than they are driving, too durable and each unit will take years to turn a profit.

No matter how reliable a commercial vehicle is, it will eventually need maintenance to continue functioning. Making a part easier for a technician to work on can directly reduce labor costs and fleet downtime, but there is often a tradeoff between manufacturing costs and service costs. For example, making a sensor a permanent part of a vehicle can cheapen assembly, but making the sensor removable can slash service time and replacement costs. Crucially, as manufacturers sell more product, they become more incentivized to trade cents during manufacturing for dollars during service when they aren’t the ones maintaining a fleet.

Operational Challenges

An interaction between reliability and serviceability that fleet operators are uniquely concerned with is the amount of idle inventory and labor that must be kept on hand. If a component is unreliable, additional spare parts will need to be stocked, which will increase demand for storage space. More employees will also need to be kept on staff to perform repairs as problems occur. Both parts inventory and labor demands can be further increased if serviceability is poor enough that one vehicle is still under maintenance when the next one arrives.

Ultimately, even the best designs will overlook a use case and need to be updated. However, even if an operator is willing to pay, suppliers may not be incentivized to improve their design. They may not be willing to take on the cost of a redesign, no longer have the technical expertise to change old components, or they may simply prefer the continued sales of replacements. Even if a supplier is willing to change a design, it is necessary to plan around their timeline and ability to address the issue, which may be limited if they have never made commercial vehicles.

The Modal is designed to automotive-grade durability and reliability standards—a new type of commercial vehicle for a new type of business

A Commercial Delivery Robot

Intermode believes that delivery robot fleet operators should not be required to manage the complexity of building a reliable and serviceable vehicle. Instead of being obligated to develop and scale an expensive tool, operators should be free to focus on their core delivery service. To achieve this goal, we used first principles engineering to create an affordable robot specifically designed for delivery: the Modal.

The Modal is designed to automotive-grade durability and reliability standards—a new type of commercial vehicle for a new type of business. Unproven reliability has disadvantaged the entire industry to hesitate switching from car or bike delivery. To demonstrate reliability, the Modal is subjected to testing plans performed by Intermode’s founders while testing vehicles at Ford Motor Company. If a defect slips through, not only will we replace the part free of charge, but we will provide an upgrade for our customers’ fleets when we design a fix.

To ensure that serviceability is not sacrificed for profit margins, Intermode will track, perform, and pay for preventative Modal maintenance. We’ll work with fleet operators to make sure that there’s no disruption to their business. If we make something that takes a lot of work to service, it’s our responsibility to take care of it, not the customer’s. We even throw in free improvements when working on the fleets, making sure that all Modals are always at the leading edge of the industry.

Each Modal is available for a low, monthly lease price, enabling both affordable scaling and easier entry to the industry. But a lease isn’t some accounting trick—Intermode believes that hardware as a service is better for customers because physical objects are depreciating assets that will inevitably fail. Rather than a fleet owner balancing robot operation against life expectancy, they are free to run their business while Intermode is incentivized to make sure the fleet is never hampering it.

Intermode aims to help the robotic delivery industry expand by partnering with existing players to scale their operations and by opening the door to new participants and their ideas. With a new kind of commercial vehicle providing the freedom to focus on their service, our partners will lead the way to affordable delivery for everyone.