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Talking Headways Podcast: Delivering Goods Autonomously

This week, we’re joined by Matthew Lipka, head of policy at Nuro. We chat about how autonomous delivery can help get people goods they need, the difference between transporting goods and people, and whether people can still pick their own produce.

We're put an edited transcript below. If you prefer a full, unedited transcript (with typos!), click here.

Jeff Wood: So I've got kind of a funny question, whether I'm a weirdo or not, I actually like going to the grocery store and even during the pandemic, it's a way for me to get out of the house. It's like my one trip now to get out of the house. I also like picking my produce. I squeezed my avocados (at least pre-pandemic I did). I like to check for mold on berries. I like to make sure that my garlic has not too small cloves. Am I a weirdo in that sense? I understand that there's going to be a number of different folks that want different things, but it's interesting to hear that this is going to happen and perhaps delivery as the way or the future and in a way that I don't know if it's meant for me personally.

Matthew Lipka: Yeah. Well, so you're not a weirdo. I've been getting a lot of harder avocados over the last few months of this pandemic and in groceries just delivered. And actually it's funny you mention produce — that's the number one thing that people say is blocking them from grocery delivery is they want to pick up their own produce. And that's fine, right? We are talking about a $3-trillion market here. We don't need to get a hundred percent of them to be delivered in order for this to be a valuable service to the community.

What we found is that it's really valuable for some people — people who are maybe really busy or lived far from a grocery store, someone that maybe is in a wheelchair who can't drive themselves to the grocery store — to have it delivered to them more affordably. So I think there's a lot of people it would be valuable for.

The other thing I'll mention is there was a recent study that we commissioned by a transportation economist group called Steer. We asked them to look at what's the economic impact in terms of hours saved. And as you might expect, the numbers were quite big. So they said over the first five years it is still growing still nascent, but over the next 10 this can start to actually get to scale.

And they did three scenarios. In that middle scenario in 2035, there's 23 percent of shopping and errands trips by car would be deliveries, right? So this is less than a quarter of them. And it's still having that massive impact. Well, I think as a society, we can get a lot of these benefits without actually having everyone to do that. If you want to get food delivered, that's fine. There's probably some things you don't want to do yourself, right? It's not just grocery, right?
It's also medicine. You have a sick kid at home. Do you really want to be leaving them to go to the store or putting them in the car to go to the store to pick up the medicine?

Maybe that's something that you want delivered, but you still want to do your own grocery shopping. There's all, there's all these different errands that we do in the week. And some of them we might want to get it delivered.

Jeff Wood: Another interesting thing from that report was that 21 billion hours of time would be saved from people not having to do trips. That was the one that kind of stuck out to me. Another question I have — it's kind of ridiculous, but I felt like I wanted to be a little bit of a contrarian to a certain extent: Has anybody calculate the potential loss of like human interaction? You know, some of the only times when you interact, maybe with people that are outside of your social circles, are when you get on a bus or if you go to the grocery store or if you were in public in certain ways, is there something that's been calculated that it talks about that kind of, that loss of connectivity with people around you?

Matthew Lipka: I haven't seen numbers on that, but it's a great point. We're already seeing an increase in delivery, right? And how do we make sure that we are not losing that human interaction? So some of my best interactions with a community are when I've been riding the bus and just talking to someone while I wait at the bus stop with 40 grocery bags. So I do think that that's really important. A friendly robot is nice. I'm sure it has some interactive value, but it's not the same as actually getting to know people in your community. So yeah, as a society, we still do that.

I do think there are things that we could do with the time other than shopping and running errands. They might be more valuable interactions. So how do we make sure that the time we get back from this, you know, 21 billion hours that we don't use them just to a stream TV or to just work longer hours? I was reading about the washing machine and the dryer and the vacuum. And when the vacuum came out, it saved a ton of time — especially for women, who did and still do most of the housework.

But what ended up happening is people spent that additional time on cleaning twice as often, right? That's not what we want people to have to do with this extra time. So as a society, we need to make sure that we have great things that people can do. They have the childcare, they need to go out and do what they're passionate about, that they have access to the transportation, to those valuable enriching facilities that they've got good access to parks or are they can, you know, teach their kids to play basketball and so forth.

Make sure that we are investing in our communities broadly so that we can use this time that might otherwise have fortuitous interactions in our communities. Well, having maybe a little more fun.

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