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Driverless delivery: Are we there yet?

Technology and Business

Alice Salter

Alice Salter

14-06-2021

       

  • In this article, we investigate the progress of driverless delivery, asking:

    • Could using AVs for delivery be better for the environment?
    • Are self-driving delivery vehicles already here?
    • Will there still be a place for people once delivery goes driverless?

With the click of the button, we can now get almost anything delivered straight to our doors. There’s no need to speak to someone to make an order or arrange delivery for your new sofa or a box full of books or a pizza on a Friday night. So, what if the actual delivery could be made without human involvement too?

 

That’s exactly what we asked when we first looked into the world of driverless delivery back in 2019. Things have progressed since then and, with both food delivery and use of ecommerce rising in light of the ongoing pandemic, demand for more efficient delivery has grown too.

 

Could AVs make delivery greener?

 

While we’re ordering more items online and increasingly opting for faster delivery, we’re also becoming more and more concerned about the environmental impact of all that driving. In a traditional model, where vans are our primary delivery vehicles, that concern is founded in fact.

 

Versatile vans are essential to the way we live our lives, forming a critical element in construction, postal and courier services, emergency services, mobile workshops, passenger transport and more. But they come with an environmental cost. Since 1990, CO2 emissions from all vans on EU roads have risen by 58%, compared to just 20% in cars.

 

Though there are now regulations in place which mean all new vans need to be zero emissions by 2035, change is not happening rapidly. The average new van in 2019 emitted 159g of CO2 per kilometre. The comparable figure for 2020 is 154g – only half the rate of annual reductions needed to reach that 2035 target.

 

Making the switch to driverless delivery, then, may reduce the environmental impact of such vehicles by replacing a large number of them with AVs. As hybrid models seem to be the most popular in AV development for now, and greener hydrogen models are expected to be introduced from 2025, there is a strong case to be made for taking vans off the road in favour of self-driving delivery vehicles.

DRIVERLESS DELIVERY WHEN A ROBOT BRINGS YOUR PIZZA - 3
Image: Unsplash

Are self-driving delivery vehicles already here?

 

Across the world, some delivery vehicles are already being replaced by self-driving robots. Since we last mentioned Nuro back in 2019, their offering of small, electric delivery robots has expanded. Now, you can order not just takeout, but groceries and pharmacy items to be delivered by the AVs and they’ve recently launched Dominos pizza delivery in Houston, Texas.

 

The tech is spreading beyond the US too. Since 2018, Starship has launched several fleets of wheeled robots in the UK, with 120 now operational in Milton Keynes, another 30 in Northampton and 60 more due to launch soon. Travelling on pavements, these compact machines are gaining traction with local audience though Henry Harris-Burland, director of marketing at Starship Technologies, maintains that acceptance isn’t easily won. “Even though our robots are doing only 4mph and are no taller than the average dog,” he explains, “people and communities can still feel threatened by them, so we have to prepare them.”

 

In Russia, the Yandex Rover, a small six-wheeled autonomous vehicle, has started delivering food in Moscow’s central business districts. And in China, ecommerce giant JD.com made its first delivery of medical aid via an autonomous vehicle last year. For both, the pandemic has been a driving force, accelerating the real-life applications of their tech and boosting public acceptance too.

 

That feeling, and the advancement of the delivery tech, is spreading quickly. In fact, as soon as 2023, Mobileye and Udelv aim to launch a full-scale, fully driverless delivery service running not just the small, single delivery robots we’ve seen elsewhere but large, van-like transporters. Between 2023 and 2028, they aim to get 35,000 on the road. Driverless delivery is ramping up.

 

Will there still be a place for people once delivery goes driverless?

 

Though we asked a similar question in 2019, it’s yet to be answered. The form of AVs currently being used driverless delivery do change the nature of the process. Now, customers must leave their property to meet the robot. With human delivery drivers, it’s the other way around.

Solving this ’50 foot problem’ is proving tricky as the last few steps between road and front door are incredibly difficult to navigate. Ford’s solution is to use two-legged robots alongside self-driving vehicles. In theory, these could overcome that last hurdle and at the moment it seems to be the most viable solution out there, but it remains an area for closer investigation.

 

Should we simplify the process and expect people to change? Will ‘delivery to door’ become a premium offering which still employs actual people? We can’t wait to see what happens next.

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