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The hype over burrito drones shows how far our expectations have fallen

BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images

Google is teaming up with Chipotle to test a prototype burrito delivery drone at a site near Virginia Tech. And it has some students seemingly psyched about it.

“This food came out of the sky from a frikkin’ drone, and now we’re eating it,” one student told Bloomberg.

The story nicely illustrates the point I made yesterday when I kicked off Vox’s new technology and economics section, New Money, with a piece arguing that the innovations of the next 20 years are likely to be a lot less disruptive than the innovations of the last 20.

There’s little doubt that drones are an impressive engineering achievement. But if you think about this technology in terms of the practical benefit to consumers, drone burrito deliveries just aren’t all that revolutionary.

After all, it’s been possible to order pizza or Chinese food for decades. Then in the last decade, there’s been a proliferation of internet and smartphone-based services like GrubHub, Seamless, Doordash, UberEats, and Yelp’s Eat24 that let you order takeout from dozens of different restaurants with a push of a button. Burrito drones would represent only an incremental improvement over these services.

Of course, burrito drones could cut costs and improve delivery times. But only up to a point. The delivery fee is already a fairly small share of the cost of getting food delivered. And much of the delay is due to the time it takes the restaurant to make the food, not the time it takes the delivery guy to drive over to your house. So even if you reduce both the cost and the delivery time to near zero, it will only represent a modest improvement in the overall service.

This isn’t in any sense a knock on drone technology. The issue is that today’s food delivery services are already so good — cheap, fast, and reliable — that there’s limited room for a drone to add value.