A delivery robot in Hollywood said fuck the police earlier this week, when it decided that no police tape or crime scene would prevent it from delivering food to a customer.
In a video posted by the popular police transparency account Film the Police LA, a delivery robot for Serve Robotics, which contracts with Uber Eats, is shown driving directly under police tape and through what was, at the time, considered to be an active crime scene at Hollywood High School, where a school shooting was suspected to have just taken place. The shooting was later deemed a hoax, though students said the event was obviously still traumatizing.
“Our standard operating procedure is to reroute and not cross barrier tapes,” a spokesperson for Serve Robotics told Motherboard in an email. “However in this instance the robot supervisor believed they were being waved through. We’re taking steps to ensure our operating procedures are followed in the future.”
In the video, someone standing near the tape raises it for the robot to go under. Then, a passerby can be heard saying “what if there’s a bomb?” “That’s going to be the easiest way to bomb people, is the robot,” another person responds. “Here’s a delivery of TNT for you guys,” the first person answers. A Lime electric scooter lays on its side next to the robot.
This is not an unwarranted fear. In 2016, police in Dallas strapped explosives to a bomb disposal robot, drove it at a suspected mass shooter, then detonated it, killing the man.
Over the last two years, a handful of delivery robot companies have popped up in Los Angeles, which are essentially remotely piloted (or autonomous, in some cases) cooler-shaped chests on wheels. The issues associated with these robots vary: In Santa Monica, a company called Coco has basically turned food delivery into a video game. Delivery “drivers” pilot the robots remotely, using an Xbox controller and using a series of cameras to help guide them. Serve Robotics explains that its robots operate with “Level 4 autonomy,” meaning they are fully autonomous in certain areas.
In a city that is already extremely treacherous for pedestrians and bikers, delivery robots operate largely on Los Angeles’ already insufficient and crowded sidewalks, taking up space and generally annoying people walking their dogs or trying to use a shared public infrastructure.
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Earlier this year, Motherboard filed a public records request with Santa Monica, which first rolled out the Coco delivery robots, and found that police and pedestrians often didn’t know how to interact with the robots.
A police report obtained by Motherboard shows that in March 2021, a man walked up to a Coco delivery robot and proceeded to “grab the robot with both hands and place it above his head and throw it on the sidewalk. [The man] yelled at the robot, kicked it, and walked southbound on Main St. out of sight.” Motherboard also obtained records of residents complaining to the city “about CoCo Box delivery robots blocking the sidewalk for pedestrians.”
Depending on how you look at this incident, it is funny, concerning, dystopian, and something we’re likely to see a lot more of.