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Uber Eats launches robotic deliveries in Tokyo

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TOKYO: “Be careful, robot!” ” chirps the green autonomous delivery vehicle as it heads to a pork chop restaurant in Tokyo to pick up a meal ordered on Uber Eats.

Starting Wednesday, March 6, robotic deliveries will be offered in a small area of ​​the city by the US-based food app, which hopes to eventually roll out the service more widely in Japan.

The country, facing a growing labor shortage, changed traffic laws last year to allow delivery robots on public streets, and other companies, including Panasonic, are also testing new cute machines for transporting goods.

Uber Eats’ square robots have square headlights for eyes and three wheels on each side to navigate sidewalks while calculating routes themselves, using sensors to avoid pedestrians and other obstacles.

Moving at up to 3.4 mph and with flashing lights around the lid, a human operator is on standby in case something goes wrong.

Like the autonomous delivery services the company launched in North America, Tokyo’s robots will initially have a limited range, said Alvin Oo, head of Uber Eats.

Users of the app have to wait outside for the robot to arrive, but one day it could arrive at their doorstep, he told AFP on Tuesday.

“Going to the office, to the specific apartment…could be useful in a place like the Tokyo skyscraper,” said Oo, director of market operations at Uber Eats Japan.

The service could also one day come to rural areas, where many residents are elderly and drivers are scarce, he added.

Current drivers “don’t need to worry,” Oo said, because “even in five or 10 years, there will still be work for human partners on the platform.”

Uber Eats and similar apps have faced strikes in the past month, and ride-hailing giant Uber has long been criticized for skirting rules on minimum wage and paid leave by arguing that its workers are not employees but independent contractors.

The Uber Eats robots, developed with Mitsubishi Electric and the American start-up Cartken, will initially deliver food from just a few restaurants in the bustling Nihonbashi district.

Users cannot choose robot delivery, and if this option is selected for them, they can accept or decline the offer.

At a protest Tuesday, the robot nearly collided with a pedestrian but also attracted a lot of attention.

It’s “so cute, so eye-catching,” said passerby Akemi Hayakawa.

“I thought it might hit people’s feet, but people are giving in,” the 60-year-old said.

“Japan has an aging and declining population, with a serious labor shortage. So this is a very good idea for Japan as well.”

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