When Refraction AI was founded in 2019, the goal was to use robotics to reduce the cost of last-mile delivery. In recent years, the startup has worked directly with restaurants in her hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to offer its bike path-bound robots as a logistics layer for customers, rather than trying to be another DoorDash or UberEats.
Just under a year ago, Refraction moved its commercial operations to Austin, Texas, where it continued to nurture individual relationships with restaurants. Along the way, the company learned that while offering favorable delivery rates to customers was still a priority, Refraction’s real unique selling point is its ability to deliver a higher quality and scalable service.
“You may be able to negotiate great prices with DoorDash, but you cannot ensure that DoorDash gives you the A1 quality drivers who do a really good job and are always on time and never make you wait and the food is always hot,” said Refraction chief technology officer and co-founder Matthew Johnson-Roberson told gotechbusiness.com. “Because you have very little control over that, even if you’re a restaurant chain as powerful as Chick-fil-A.”
Chick-fil-A, the fast-food restaurant chain that specializes in chicken sandwiches with a side of god, said on Tuesday it has enlisted Refraction AI to deploy a fleet of the startup’s self-driving vehicles at two of its downtown restaurants. from Austin – at 6th & Congress, where the companies held the first tests, and on Martin Luther King boulevard. Commercial pilot will begin in late June, Refraction said in a statement.
“I do not speak for” [Chick-fil-A]but I feel like these experiments aim to fill some of the gaps that still exist in current offerings in the market that don’t provide the level of service they were looking for,” Johnson-Roberson said.
Refractive wouldn’t say exactly how many vehicles it would deliver for Chick-fil-A, but it’s “an order of 10,” Johnson-Roberson said.
The Chick-fil-A deal is part of a larger series of tests Refraction is conducting to understand how it can serve fast-serve restaurants by maximizing the profitability and effectiveness of robotic delivery, Johnson-Roberson said. By working with a large chain, rather than individual restaurants, the startup’s fleet could easily be filled with all the robots it has now “and probably other robots we could build in the short to medium term.”
The company is currently developing similar partnerships with retail and grocery customers, a spokesperson told gotechbusiness.com.
Refraction’s REV-1 robot is affectionately called the “Goldilocks of robotic delivery” because it’s not too small to work alone on sidewalks and not too big to work alone on the street. Built on a bicycle foundation, the robot operates as such in the bike path (where they exist, in shoulders where they are not), at speeds of about 24 miles per hour. This, Johnson-Roberson says, allows the company to extend delivery times while keeping engineering costs low – slower speeds than a fully autonomous vehicle mean less risk and no need for an expensive lidar to see far away.
The robots are largely self-driving with very little human supervision, Johnson-Roberson said. Refraction achieves this by trying to stick to routes that are easier to drive autonomously. The robots switch to remote-controlled mode, where an operator remotely monitors and sometimes controls the vehicle, only for infrequently used routes or situations that are difficult to handle autonomously, such as certain high-risk intersections, unprotected left turns.
“We aim for a very short delivery time,” Johnson-Roberson says, noting that prompt delivery is also essential to ensure food arrives at a reasonable temperature – “10 to 12 minutes.”
The REV-1s have a compartment that is insulated to protect the temperature of the food, but air from the vehicle’s electronics also flows into the main compartment, raising the ambient temperature.
“One of the things I didn’t expect is the critical nature of the quality of the food delivery experience for major brands,” Johnson-Roberson says. “They live or die by the fact that people think their food is turning up and it’s always good and tasty, and it’s repeatable.”
Being repeatable is what will help Refraction maintain and eventually expand its relationship with Chick-fil-A and potentially other larger chains. After all, that’s the way restaurant chains everywhere: make it the same, make it good, and make it scalable.