Driverless robots in Ann Arbor seek piece of food-delivery pie

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Self-driving autos hold enormous promise for ride-hailing services and commercial transportation.

But the first autonomous vehicle you see in practical use might bring you lunch.

The REV, an autonomous robot made by Refraction AI, will begin making meal deliveries from four restaurants to a test group of 300 customers in downtown Ann Arbor beginning Jan. 3. Five feet tall, with three wheels and a fuselage like an oversized bike helmet, the 100-pound REV promises food drops for half the cost of existing delivery services like Grubhub, EatStreet and DoorDash.

If successful, REV could begin the transformation of downtowns into "Blade Runner"-like metropolises populated by wee bots hustling meal, grocery and document deliveries along byways at 15 mph.

“We want to get autonomous vehicles on the road in a way that’s safe,” Refraction AI CEO  Matthew Johnson-Roberson said at the company's headquarters in downtown Ann Arbor. “Our biggest focus is dense, urban areas. At (these) speeds, it’s a safe proposition.”

Refraction's REV 1 autonomous food delivery vehicle makes its way down Fourth Street in downtown Ann Arbor, bound for Miss Kim restaurant in Kerrytown to pick up a food order.

The REV program slots in a growing ecosystem of robotic delivery vehicles. Small bots from San Francisco-based Starship can be found on about 15 college campuses making food deliveries, while California start-up Nuro employs car-sized, 2,500-pound grocery delivery vehicles in the Scottsdale and Houston suburbs.

These robot companies share business models that Uber and Lyft taxi services are ultimately predicated on: remove the driver and reduce transportation costs dramatically. In the case of REV, that means Refraction only charges restaurants 10-15% of an order, compared to the 30-35% that's typical of its human-piloted delivery competition.

“Grubhub costs are unaffordable to us,” said Ji Hye Kim, proprietor of the Miss Kim restaurant Ann Arbor, one of the restaurants participating in Refraction’s rollout. “Such services are basically just for marketing.”

Says Johnson-Roberson, who co-founded the company with fellow University of Michigan faculty member Ram Vasudevan: “We want to build something that makes the economics work. We’re using affordable hardware. We’re not spending Bentley money to drive around your tacos.”

The Detroit News followed a demonstration run of REV-1 (shorthand for the first-model Refraction Electric Vehicle) around downtown Ann Arbor on a snowy, frigid day where a customer (a Refraction employee) ordered food from Miss Kim about a quarter-mile away.

Orders are made via phone app. Then REVs are dispatched from their “nest” at Refraction headquarters. Deliveries will be made in 30 minutes within a 2-mile radius from four restaurants including Miss Kim, Belly Deli, Tios Mexican Cafe and Chow Asian Street Food. Refraction’s service will debut with five vehicles making runs from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., with a goal of saturating Ann Arbor with 35 bots.

Just 30 inches wide, the REV-1 navigates streets as a bicyclist would — using bike lanes or hugging curbs and parked cars.

Just 30 inches wide, the REV-1 navigated city streets as a bicyclist would — using bike lanes where possible, or hugging curbs and parked cars. Sidewalks are off-limits. Much of REV's delivery model is built around the e-bike ecosystem that has become commonplace in U.S. cities.

“Eighty-ninety percent of our travel is not in a bike lane. We travel in the margin of the road,” said Johnson-Roberson, 36. “The biggest problem we face is a car door opening on us — just like a bicyclist. Small pets are a real tough problem — and squirrels.”

REV pulled up to Miss Kim to pick up its package. Kim emerged with two bags and entered a code on the REV keypad. A side-door popped open, exposing the pod’s 16-cubic-feet belly which can hold four or five delivery bags. Pausing for a crossing pedestrian, the REV pulled out of the parking lot and trundled down Fourth Avenue toward its destination.

The pod was not immune from road rage; one commuter yelled at it to get out of the way in Miss Kim’s narrow parking lot. Refraction AI teleoperators monitored it remotely, ready to take control should issues arise. Case in point: Ann Arbor’s busy transit center where heavy pedestrian traffic can stymie REV’s route.

But armed with two lidar laser sensors as well as a cloak of cameras, radar and ultrasound sensors, the robot is capable of negotiating streets in any climate — including this wintry, 19-degree Michigan day.

Upon arrival at its destination, REV alerted the customer via the app to come and extract their order.

Johnson-Roberson says that the challenges of Michigan roads are essential to training REV for national markets: “Our approach is the potholes are so bad — we are building a vehicle robust enough that it can hit them and keep moving. During the big (November snow) storm, we were out every day ... because you’re not going to get scalability without dealing with winter.”

Refraction plans to expand to Boston in 2020 as well as Madison, Wisconsin and Palo Alto, California.

“We want to do Detroit as well. We’re thinking Corktown where Ford wants to have its mobility hub. That’s going to be a great place to operate,” Johnson-Roberson said.

While Google put autonomy on the map in 2015 with its marshmallow-shaped Google car, Refraction AI is evidence of the large role the Midwest plays in the autonomous industry.  

REV is assembled by Roush Industries in Livonia at an affordable $4,000. Roush also built the Google car. The robot was designed — including a full-scale clay model — by a local auto designer. Refraction’s Ann Arbor team works on electronics and software.

“Between here and Detroit are a host of suppliers, part makers. We’ve had no problem sourcing frames, components, everything we need from the automotive supply chain,” said the CEO whose chief investors are eLab and Trucks Venture Capital.

Trained in marine robotics and computer science, Johnson-Roberson comes out of Pittsburgh’s heralded Carnegie-Mellon engineering ecosystem that has produced such industry talents as Google car pioneer Chris Urmson (now with Aurora Innovation) and John Bares who runs Uber’s huge autonomous tech center in Pittsburgh.

The autonomous ambitions of Google and Uber have come under fire from labor activists as a threat to jobs. Ride services employ thousands of “gig economy” drivers, from full-time employees to part-time students looking for extra income.

Refraction CEO Matthew Johnson-Robertson, talks about the company's REV 1 autonomous food delivery vehicle prototype that they've been testing in Ann Arbor.

Johnson-Roberson is sensitive to the issue but sees autonomous companies as models for sustainable, higher-paying jobs.

“(Gig economy) drivers often wind up making less than minimum wage. They get paid per delivery. They are transient jobs, people don’t like them,” he said. “Everyone at Refraction is a full-time employee or part-time student. Our vision is to have employees get full benefits.”

The driverless REVs can go about their chores for up to 12 hours on a single charge and then return to their nest to juice up overnight.

As the REV program expands nationally to 60 vehicles over the next six to 12 months, Johnson-Roberson says Refraction will quickly grow out of its small, sparse Washington Street offices — not only to provide space for robots and maintenance but to house teleoperators who monitor REVs going about their business all over the country.

Restaurateur Kim is excited about the prospects.

“I think the idea is super-cool,” she said. “The robots are cute, but as business owners, their affordability offers us the chance to hire more employees devoted to delivery services because the cheap business model allows us more money to pay our employees.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne.