We followed Coco the food delivery robot in Houston

I felt a pang of irony last Friday as I ran as fast as I could, panting, to catch up with Coco, a delivery robot I’d spent the last few weeks mocking mercilessly.

The food delivery service, by a Los Angeles-based start-up, had recently launched in Houston, promising to get your takeout from the restaurant home quickly and without a car. But how could a robot navigate Houston’s treacherous sidewalks, when even a capable human struggles to navigate amid the city’s crumbling or non-existent pedestrian infrastructure?

It became my mission to find out.

Coco started in 2020 in Los Angeles and arrived in Austin and Houston in February and March, respectively. The company plans to roll out the service in Dallas and Miami soon. The robot comes in the form of a large coral-to-fuschia gradient roller box, waving a small flag from an antenna.

If anyone wishes to meet Coco, as I did so desperately, they must order delivery from a participating restaurant as they usually would. If the address is within 2 miles of the restaurant, Coco will automatically ship, unless the path is deemed inaccessible. A restaurant worker loads food into Coco and launches him on his journey; at the other end, diners receive a text with a tracker, and finally a prompt to open Coco when it has reached its destination. (Coco remains locked during its journey.)

Participating restaurants in Houston include Bollo Woodfired Pizza, Trendy Dumpling, Brookstreet BBQ, Pepperoni’s, Ruggles Black and Rustika Cafe & Bakery. Cocos are delivered to each restaurant every morning, then picked up after closing time and taken to a warehouse where they recharge overnight, kind of like a ride, if you will.

I was looking forward to meeting Coco, but I wouldn’t just summon her. I wanted to follow his adventure from A to Z.

Three Coco delivery robots sit outside Trendy Dumpling.

Emma Baller

Based on the small list of registered restaurants provided to me by the company spokesperson, I determined that the closest to the Houston Chronicle building (where Chron’s newsroom is located) was Trendy Dumpling, just within 1.4 mile Coco delivery radius. But while it fit the distance criteria, I was very skeptical of how Coco would reach me, given that the restaurant is in a strip mall sandwiched between busy Westpark Drive and the frontage road of the Southwest Freeway. The company uses custom routing software that decides whether to send a Coco or let a human deliver food if there are too many obstacles in the way, such as a lack of sidewalks or ramps.

Coco doesn’t travel on highways or other high-speed streets, but a curb on the charger gave me hope that the robot’s mission would be successful. I hired Chron reporter Jay Jordan, who was bribed with a free lunch, to drive with me to Trendy Dumpling, pass a delivery note, and then follow Coco to our offices on foot.

After adding shu mai dumplings and pork bao to my cart, I wrote a hopeful “I’ll come down to meet Coco” in the delivery instructions. Then we posted ourselves in front of the three Cocos parked on the side of the restaurant, wishing that one of them was ours. After about 10 minutes, I received a disappointing text that a real person was on the way with my food, and we returned with our tails between our legs to intercept it in the normal, annoying way.

Deflated but not defeated, I decided to try again in a neighborhood more conducive to Coco. After some thought, I identified that a friend of mine lived 0.5 miles from Bollo Woodfired Pizza, another restaurant in Houston using Coco.

The Montrose-Upper Kirby area is much more walkable than the junction between I-610 and US 59, and yet even Houston’s most pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods are notoriously bad at finding good sidewalks, which sometimes suddenly cease to exist, or are shredded from tree roots and tectonic movements which are not fixed or are being repaired, another obstacle in itself. Since launching Coco in Houston, I had seen a few social media reports of the poor stuck robot.

If faced with construction, lack of footpaths, or other obstacles, Coco is permitted to temporarily ride on a shoulder or low-speed bike path until he can re-enter. the sidewalk, the spokesperson said. But Coco isn’t completely alone in Houston’s Wild West infrastructure: real humans pilot the robots remotely. Coco pilots can be based anywhere and can operate Cocos in multiple cities, even in a single shift. And yes, if you add a tip to your order, it goes to the Coco driver.

Standing in an alley between the restaurant and a paint supply store, I went to the Bollo site, whose “order online” button took me to GrubHub. Thinking it was the same, I ordered a salsiccia bianco pizza and waited a few minutes before deciding to double check if I had done this correctly. I went inside and, playing dumb, asked the host how to get a Coco delivery, and found out it had to be done through DoorDash specifically.

Embarrassed, I walked out to tell the news to my very patient friend, and we headed back to our destination to receive a food delivery via a human.

A tracker lets you know that a Coco is summoned.

A tracker lets you know that a Coco is summoned.

Emma Baller

With a charm attitude for the third time, we drove back to Bollo, munching on a slice of #1 pizza in the car. I placed an order on DoorDash, this time for Diavola pizza and a Coke, and screamed loudly when I received a text message leading me to a Coco tracking page. Exactly 32 minutes later, we saw a Bollo employee load a pizza and a coke into a Coco, which left less than a minute later.

Coco sped out of the restaurant parking lot onto the West Alabama Street sidewalk and, within the first 10 feet of her route, encountered a sharp step between two slabs of uneven pavement. Coco bumped into it but immediately managed to overcome the obstacle. I was very impressed.

He rounded the corner onto Greenbriar Drive and picked up speed, so much so that I had to jog lightly to keep up with him. Two minutes later, Coco was confronted with an orange cone and a yellow warning tape; he stopped briefly and walked around him onto the shoulder of the street. Another minute passed and Coco encountered protruding tree roots. He slowed almost to a stop, then awkwardly but successfully passed him. Coco sped up again – how convinced I was that he was taunting me for doubting it. By the time we reached Westheimer Road, I was out of breath from running after it, though it wasn’t clear if it was due to my ineptitude, uncontrollable laughter, or both.

Once in Westheimer, Coco came to a crossroads, literally: How would the little guy get across the busy street? It trailed, facing the road ahead of Kevin Spearman Design, for about 30 seconds as cars passed in both directions. He moved another 10 feet to a different location, before being barked at by a dog, then abandoning his perch a minute and a half later. Coco retraced his steps for almost a block, but just when I thought he might be heading back to the restaurant, defeated he dashed past traffic in a blatant jaywalk, narrowly avoiding a Chevy Silver Cruz heading west.

” Oh my God ! Oh my God ! I exclaimed upon seeing the scene, recorded in a video that is now on Chron’s TikTok for posterity.

After this high-stakes drama, it was a breeze for Coco, who navigated to the back entrance of my friend’s building and alerted me via text of her arrival (which I was already aware of , having followed the robot all the way). When prompted, I clicked a button on my phone and the top of Coco opened up to a Bollo pizza and a cold bottle of Coca-Cola, which I desperately needed after my run. 0.5 miles. The journey took 12 minutes from the restaurant to the house.

Coco has arrived safely at her destination.

Coco has arrived safely at her destination.

Emma Baller

GrubHub’s accidental order ended up being a good method of checking: both pizzas were delivered lukewarm, with the same canned-tasting roasted red peppers and wilted greens.