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Driverless delivery: when a robot brings your pizza

Domino's is experimenting with self-driving pizza delivery. (Photo: Ford)

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2025AD Team

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Though fully autonomous vehicles for passengers remain years away, those for delivery are just around the corner. Here is why.

The market for autonomous delivery is buzzing. Companies like Ford, Daimler and Toyota as well as start-ups such as Nuro, Udelv, Starship Technologies, Boxbot, and Robby Technologies are all crowding in. But what has triggered this rush? What strategies do these players pursue? And how far are they in delivering goods automatically?

To understand the excitement start with an assessment by McKinsey. The consultancy calculated that the global annual market for parcel delivery amounted to €70 billion with growth rates of 7-10% in mature markets and 300% in developing countries such as India. By 2025 up to 80% of parcels would be delivered autonomously, particularly on the labour-intensive last mile where about half the costs arise.

Training behind closed doors

A decisive company has been Amazon. In 2012 it bought Kiva Systems, a manufacturer of delivery robots for warehouses. These miniature cities with fewer regulations have been an ideal training ground, says Jim Adler, managing director of Toyota AI Ventures. Amazon’s purchase of Kiva was an “inflection point”, he recently explained. “The same autonomous technologies (i.e. sensors, perception, prediction, planning) used to pack boxes in warehouses are now being pressed into the service of delivering those packages to your door.”

An Amazon worker with the company's warehouse robot. (Photo: Amazon)

Indeed, in early 2018 Amazon applied for a patent for its “autonomous ground vehicle” (AGV). This robot can be stationed outside apartment blocks to carry parcels from delivery trucks to a client’s house. The robots can potentially even open doors to flats using the company’s new camera controlled smart lock system called Amazon Key.

All shapes and sizes

Other companies have caught on, pursuing one of three strategies. First, manufacturers like Ford are adapting existing car models. The Detroit-based company has teamed up with the courier service Postmates and the pizza seller Domino’s. Thus it modified Transit Connect vans by integrating two lockers in the rear and one on the side to test a meal-delivery system in Miami, Ann Arbor and Las Vegas. The vans are driven by humans, but made to appear like self-driving cars to study customers’ interaction with autonomous vehicles.

A second approach is that of Nuro. The start-up from Mountain View was founded in 2016 by two former leading engineers of Google’s self-driving car project Waymo. With more than 100 employees today Nuro has developed the R1, an autonomous delivery car designed from scratch with LIDAR, cameras, radars and a completely new software stack – but with no driver’s seat or steering wheel.

Nuro tests autonomous deliveries in Arizona. (Photo: Nuro)

Pundits have compared the R1 to a “mobile toaster”. But two successful funding rounds for a combined sum of €80 million suggest that investors believe in the car’s design. It only weighs 680 kilograms, can carry a load of 110 kilograms and is only about 1 meter wide. This reduced scale helps avoiding collisions, the founders explain. In August, Nuro started joint test trials with the supermarket retailer Kroger in Arizona delivering groceries for a flat fee of about €5.

Initially, the pilot project still uses Toyota Prius cars equipped with self-driving features similar to those of R1, but controlled by human safety drivers, as the company concedes. “The goal is to learn as much as we can from our customers and our respective operations teams,” says a spokesperson. “We will introduce R1 this fall into the pilot.”

Small is beautiful

Finally, other companies use robots scaled back even further to drive at walking speed on pavements. These vehicles often look like oversized mobile cooler boxes. Some of them have four wheels like Amazon’s AGV and a similar, though already unveiled, vehicle by Oakland-based Boxbot. Others have six wheels such as the robots by London-based Starship Technologies and its competitor Robby Technologies from Palo Alto.

According to a study by the consultancy Frost & Sullivan such robots weigh between 11 and 36 kilograms, have a load capacity similar to their weight, a range of up to 16 kilometres, a battery life of up to 12 hours and a price between €1700 and €26.000. In test trials the robots are usually still monitored by humans. However, Frost & Sullivan predicts, “by 2020 delivery bots will be 99% autonomous.”

There are several reasons why self-driving vehicles for delivery mature faster than those for passengers. First, they are usually smaller and slower and thus easier to steer and stop; second, they can take their time to process and solve unforeseen problems; and finally, with no passengers and often considerably less weight the risk associated with collisions is reduced.

However, driverless delivery doesn’t come without challenges. It remains to be seen how robots that use sidewalks will navigate amongst hundreds of pedestrians in extremely busy city centres, if people will trust robots to enter into their houses and how these robots will reach apartments that lie higher than the ground level.

Toyota’s Jim Adler knows such obstacles and expects, “it will be years before we share roads with Level 5 self-driving cars.” Though when his company invested in Boxbot in June he predicted. “There are specific use cases where autonomous vehicles could hit the roads now. Self-driving delivery is an example of just that.”

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