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Robot at your door: Are consumers ready for automated delivery?

As Amazon and Walmart step up their game in drone delivery, with Amazon planning 10,000 drone deliveries in Europe and Walmart expanding to an additional 60,000 homes in the U.S., the question arises: Are consumers ready for automated delivery? 

This significant shift in delivery methods is the subject of a new study by Northwestern University’s Mobility and Behavior Lab. The researchers set out to gauge public readiness for automated delivery technologies.

Focus of the study 

To explore the societal perceptions of these emerging technologies, the team conducted a survey involving 692 U.S. respondents. The survey was also designed to explore preferences across various delivery options and variables like speed and package handling. 

Impact of new technologies 

Study senior author Amanda Stathopoulos emphasized the importance of considering the impact of new technologies on people and communities. 

“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,” said Stathopoulos.

New insights

The researchers found a complex relationship between behavior and acceptance of automated delivery technologies. Automated vehicles were more readily accepted compared to drones and robots, likely due to the existing familiarity with self-driving cars. 

However, acceptance increased with faster delivery and lower costs. Tech-savvy individuals were more open to these technologies than those less familiar with them.

Stathopoulos said that people have come to expect efficient delivery from e-commerce purchases as they increasingly work from home, especially after the pandemic. 

Benefits of automated delivery

“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 labor conditions in warehouses, air pollution and congested streets,” said Stathopoulos. 

“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.”

Lack of public acceptance 

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, the researchers caution that these innovations may fail because of a lack of public acceptance.

Evolving dynamics 

Stathopoulos urges the integration of shipping and logistics centers into city planning, taking cues from some European cities. She also calls for policy makers to join the conversation as drone use and labor dynamics evolve. 

“On the planning side, we need to make sure that we embrace the fact that the massive amount of deliveries is going to shape our cities,” said Stathopoulos. “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.”

To overcome reluctance to accept new technologies, Stathopoulos said that policy makers and companies can prepare for the future by listening to consumers and conducting more frequent assessments.

The study was supported by the National Science Foundation Career program.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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