One morning in May 2020, Karen Collins spent an hour sorting vegetables from her garden into six plastic containers. When she was close to finishing she messaged her local market, which dispatched a Universal Courier Service courier to her house. Half an hour later, Karen deposited the containers with the courier and went for a jog in the park.
The only human involved in this process was Karen. The local market was online and fully automated, and the UCS courier was an unmanned 'deliverbot' — one of the most unassuming yet disruptive technologies of the 21st century.
I'm at the Wuhan Museum of Transportation in China, where curator Henry Whittaker has kindly set up a UCS courier vehicle for me. It's a compact thing, about a cubic-metre in size and shape, made from lightweight carbon fibre, with four small wheels and a sliding door on the top. UCS picked yellow as its corporate colour, supposedly to catch the eye and make sure any human drivers wouldn't miss it, and this courier is no different.
If I walk up to the vehicle, it should recognise the glasses I’ve been given and send an authorisation code to check that I'm the right person. And yes, I now have permission to slide open the top and deposit this package I'm sending to Dr. Whittaker. Some couriers had individual lockable compartments that could be reconfigured depending on requirements, but this one just has a single large compartment. Of course, before it'll let me drop anything in, I have to peel off a tracking sticker and put it on the package so that I can track it.
With the package safely registered inside, the courier begins trundling away, navigating to its destination at a top speed of 80 km/h using a combination of laser rangefinders, satellite positioning, and video cameras. If we were back in 2020, when millions of people were using UCS every day, then this courier might have picked up other items and made deliveries along the way, or perhaps stopped to recharge its batteries before arriving at Dr. Whittaker’s. Its route was determined by traffic levels, congestion charges, fee levels, customer location, electricity costs, and so on.
Since we're the only two people on its list, I can see that this bot is heading off straight towards Dr. Whittaker, who's waiting on the opposite site of the museum. You might not think that such a simple robot would be so influential — it can’t even make anything or talk to anyone, after all — but it turns out that moving things from A to B was an extraordinarily expensive and cumbersome business before UCS appeared.
This little vehicle changed entire industries. It created millions of jobs, and it destroyed tens of millions more. How did it get there? Dr. Whittaker says:
"If you look at the media from the teens, the thing everyone was most excited about was driverless cars. However, getting all the safety and insurance regulations in place for their use on public roads took years. It was deliverbots that paved the way; they faced less opposition from lobbyists, and frankly, they seemed less likely to cause injuries or scare people."
In 2017, when UCS was founded in Silicon Valley by Kevin Wing, it wasn’t competitive with existing shipping companies such as FedEx, DHL, and UPS, as it simply didn't have the infrastructure. Instead, UCS focused on two specific types of market: underserved areas in 'UCS-friendly' states such as Nevada and California, and high-density, high-volume cities such as New York and Singapore.
The high costs of installing charging garages and manufacturing their fleet of couriers almost crippled UCS before it got off the ground, but a series of timely contracts with city governments keen to reduce their wage and pension bills helped stave off the company's bankruptcy. UCS's success in fulfilling those contracts attracted more business, and before long they were offering subscription plans across North America and Europe. People were becoming positively affectionate to the bright yellow vehicles.
But UCS's vehicles were only part of the picture. What UCS delivered wasn't merely goods but the disintermediation of supply. Before deliverbots, getting goods to customers was too costly for most producers; instead, they had to work with middlemen such as distributors, shops, supermarkets, and warehouses, all of whom took fees that increased the sale price.
UCS changed that world completely by giving producers a direct route to their customers' front door, at a lower cost than ever. People came up with all sorts of novel applications. In New York, amateur fast-food restaurants dispatched fresh dinners across the city every evening (eliminating 'food deserts' in the process). In London, you could hire a UCS courier for free to take away unused perishables and unwanted clothes and send them to charities. In Helsinki, residents regularly borrowed appliances, power tools, kitchen utensils, suitcases, and gardening equipment from one another via UCS rather than buying them and letting them sit unused for months or years. In Berlin, lovers sent perishable mementoes such as scented flowers to one another. And across the world, small-scale farmers delivered their produce direct to the door.
Since the couriers could work 24 hours a day and seven days a week without tiring or complaining, their services were priced dynamically. Some smart businesses took advantage of low off-peak prices by dispatching couriers with free samples of their products in order to gain new customers; it was hard to resist trying on a pair of perfectly sized shoes when they were delivered straight to your front door.
When UCS, with its share price sky-high, bought FedEx, it took over its network of warehouses and sorting hubs, allowing it to cheaply route goods on a global scale. UCS also went head-to-head with Walmart and the other giant retail chains. Just as phone and internet carriers from the previous decade had become 'dumb pipes' with little to tell them apart, retailers had become 'dumb warehouses', ripe for disruption.
These advances didn't come about without a massive human cost: millions of people working in the transportation industry lost their jobs to UCS and its competitors in the 20s and 30s. While deliverbots weren't as versatile as human workers, they were much cheaper and rapidly consumed the most profitable parts of incumbents' transportation and retail businesses. Looking back, it's clear that the social upheaval and increasing inequality resulting from the job losses contributed to the demand for basic minimum income that spread across the world in later years.
For a while UCS was the darling of the world, swiftly popularising new courier systems such as the Silver Retriever, a six-legged 'packbot' that could be deployed from larger couriers to carry goods across uneven ground or up and down stairs, and the Storks, copters that specialised in time-sensitive deliveries.
Yet less than two decades after it was founded, UCS itself had become obsolete. Deliverbot manufacturers began to directly rent their vehicles to customers using an open-delivery protocol, and then even the vehicle designs were open-sourced. Just as UCS had disintermediated shipping, open standards disintermediated UCS.