in may, damion shelton, the CEO of Agility Robotics, watched nervously as his new robot, Digit, attempted a groundbreaking feat: delivering a package from a self-driving vehicle to a front porch. “The robot has only been assembled for a couple months,” he says. “Now, it needs to stand and walk on its own. Will it fall and damage itself or deliver the package?”
Digit, a five-foot-tall, 88-pound bipedal robot, stands upright on thin, long, ostrich-like legs. It has 3D-printed rubber balls instead of fingers, a laser-range (LiDAR) sensor, a 3D camera for its head, and a battery-pack that lets it run for three hours on a single charge. Capable of picking up packages that weigh up to 40 pounds, Digit is designed to work in sync with self-driving vehicles, unfolding itself from the trunks of cars to deliver items across short distances within neighborhoods.
Once Digit arrives in the vehicle with a package, then comes the moment of truth: It has to navigate its way from the driveway of a home to the doorstep. The robot unfolds in the back of the self-driving vehicle and lands on the street, grips the package, and strolls with a smooth but mechanical gait while taking a detour around a fallen scooter. Digit then walks up a flight of steps to lay the box at the doorstep.
Shelton exhaled. Mission accomplished. It’s a huge leap forward for the technology.
“This feels more like a mature system than when we started,” says Shelton, one of the leading minds in an emerging field. “Long term, technologies like this are going to transform the last mile of delivery, automating package delivery for everyone.”
Digit, and the artificial intelligence that enables it, is on the verge of transforming how we live, shop, and receive goods, opening up package delivery from nationwide distribution centers to local corner stores. The robot-based service is a prime example of how transportation technology can transform and strengthen life in local communities. Besides overhauling large-scale commercial infrastructures across the U.S., innovations such as artificial intelligence, automation, and self-driving vehicles are beginning to change our lives in a much more personal way—by strengthening services in our local neighborhood service, improving communication, and providing greater job opportunities.
The autonomous vehicle revolution is coming. According to a 2019 study by research and advisory firm Gartner, automated driving Level 3 (conditional, limited automation requiring a human driver) and Level 4 (high automation, will not require a human driver) vehicles will have significant market penetration by 2025, and will be driving the industry within the next five years. As autonomous vehicles and other innovations transform how we navigate our world in real time, scientists, artists, urban planners, and politicians are harnessing these breakthroughs to shape our neighborhoods in three fundamental ways: increasing communication and job opportunities, and helping local businesses reach new customers.
Gleaning Ideas from Everyone. The first step in using technology to strengthen local communities and transportation is simple—listen to residents. With new innovations, from self-driving vehicles to drones, city leaders are presented with an array of options for shaping the future look and function of streets. Yet, amid all the bustle, sometimes it can be easy to overlook the insight of residents. By using social media to communicate with neighbors and local politicians, residents can better ensure their voices are heard from the stoop to city hall.
Hannah Beachler, the Academy Award-winning production designer for the film, Black Panther, believes in simply walking the streets and listening to everyone before implementing technology. It was part of her own process when designing Black Panther, visiting locales from South Africa to South Korea, and then using her imagination to create new worlds.
“In order to create the streets of the future, we need to talk with a wide range of voices, going outside of our boxes to talk with everyone from the elderly neighbor on the street to the man who collects our garbage,” Beachler says. “Futurism is about evolving ourselves—a garbage collector who’s been driving the streets for 20 years will definitely have a better idea for how it can be done in a more efficient way.”
Provide Training for the Shifting Job Market. Transportation technology can strengthen communities by providing citizens with more and higher-paying job opportunities. Concerns about job losses have come with the changes automated technology will bring. Yet according to a 2018 report by the World Economic Forum, machines and AI in the workplace are expected to create 133 million new roles by 2022, offsetting jobs lost by a sizeable percentage, and resulting in 58 million new jobs in the next few years.
This trend is already manifesting on city streets. In Phoenix, one of the leading cities for transportation innovation in the U.S., officials have worked to ensure that technology results in new jobs. As home to the seventh-largest refugee resettlement community in the U.S.—many of whom start off their lives in service jobs as taxi drivers—Phoenix partnered with Lyft to offer a program that provides former cab drivers access to rental cars so that they can enter the ride sharing industry. The city also has offered community outreach to refugees on how to navigate its light rail system, a 26-mile network connecting downtown Phoenix to Tempe and Mesa, creating 35,000 new jobs and increasing access to work and education.
“We’ll continue to be an innovative city, but also conscientious about disruption, so that we can ensure everyone benefits as much as possible,” says Kate Gallego, Phoenix’s mayor. “Whether through workforce training dollars or ensuring a platform is designed to benefit as many people as possible, we work to think about how technology can benefit everyone in our communities.”
Using Tech to Revolutionize Basic Services. Ford is also exploring new ways self-driving vehicles can work around the clock in neighborhoods, hauling AI robots that will deliver groceries from local shops during the day, and then cart passengers around at night in more affordable ride-sharing options. This will help local businesses thrive while making residents’ lives easier. Next year, Agility plans to launch Digit commercially and enter a heavier phase of testing—perhaps appearing in neighborhoods as soon as 2021, when Ford plans to launch its commercial self-driving service.
“Robots and new types of transportation technology will allow us to expand how we live and work,” Shelton says. “Soon, technology like Digit will become commonplace—giving people of all income levels more time to enjoy their day.”