Robert Zehner, ’94

The robot at the door

March 6, 2023


By Kim Catley

During the pandemic, as restaurants experimented with new approaches to food delivery, a small army of robotic vehicles could be seen traversing a growing number of city streets and college campuses.

Behind some of these meals on micro wheels is Rob Zehner, ’94, vice president of vehicle engineering for Coco, which offers electric robot couriers piloted by a remote team of human operators. Zehner oversees the development and maintenance of the vehicle fleet.

“We see ourselves as the canonical last-mile delivery company,” he said. “We want to deliver anything from locations in your community to your doorstep or your office. Food delivery is a great place to start because it’s something everybody is familiar with.”

Zehner joined Coco in February 2022 after 11 years at Amazon, where he worked on the Kindle e-reader display, tablets, and Echo devices. He says the principles of electrical and mechanical design carry over, but the scale is vastly different. Instead of millions of devices intended for mass consumption, Zehner and his team are building a fleet of thousands of robots.

The pivot also marks a return to the startup environment where he began his industrial career. Before Amazon, he worked for E Ink, the company that developed the paper-like display technology used in the Kindle.

Zehner said it’s exciting to work in a company’s formative stage where he has a direct sense of his role in a product’s successes — and its failures. Right now, Coco is looking to a future where the vehicles are operated autonomously rather than by remote drivers. That means his team is developing camera systems, ultrasonic and radar sensors, and the computing capability to map the world and give driving directions to the robot.

“It’s truly interdisciplinary work, which I find a lot of fun,” Zehner said. “I feel like I get paid to do my hobby.”