#Vanlife: what happens when deliveries go driverless?

Private Life and Mobility

Raven Brooks

Raven Brooks



Delivery drivers are an essential element of modern life. We all rely on them, in more ways than we could possibly imagine. But is driverless tech likely to change that?  


We’ve all been there. It’s 9pm on a Friday night. You’ve just put on your comfiest pyjamas... only to discover there’s no food in the house. Well, no food that you have the energy to make into a meal after a long working week. 

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You do the sensible thing and order a takeaway. A pizza, maybe. You don’t even need to talk to the person taking the order, it’s all done via an app. But you will still need to receive your dinner once it has been prepared - and that requires human input. A person to hand your pizza to you. 

At least, it does right now in most parts of the world. But that’s showing signs of changing and there are a few places putting driverless deliveries into practice. Today, we look at what that could mean for the delivery vehicles, for their drivers and for us.  

The unsung heroes of the vehicular world (Photo: unsplash)

Stop thinking about pizza for a moment and start thinking about the people and the technology that delivers them. Have you ever thought about vans? Sure, many of us have daydreamed about ditching the 9-5 grind in favour of an old school VW campervan, the open road and no real place to be. But how much thought do we give to 'light commercial vehicles' and their drivers?  

It turns out we should probably be paying more attention to the vans in our life than we have been. They are the unsung heroes of the vehicular world and are a much bigger deal for our day-to-day lives than we may realise. They are also about to undergo an autonomous revolution, which could completely change the way we see, drive and use them.  



The importance of delivering driverless 

According to the 
ACEA (European Automobile Manufacturers Association), 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 many other things. They are largely used by small to medium sized businesses – or SMEs – and are therefore essential to the economy. The world, as we know it, simply couldn't work like it does without them.  

However, in 2016, 
96 per cent of them were diesel, with the average emissions of each measured at 163.8g CO2/km. This is not sustainable. Yet vans will always be essential, especially for deliveries. Clearly, something has to change. First, they will become electrified, then, they will become autonomous. Globally. 


Delivering driverless: USA



There have already been big leaps in the field of driverless deliveries, especially in America. The Silicon Valley company Nuro has started a ‘robo-delivery service’ in partnership with grocer Kroger Co in Scottsdale, Arizona, with plans to roll it out to Houston later this year. Nuro has also partnered with Dominos, with tiny self-driving pizza delivery vans "with no space for a human operator" already taking to the streets of Houston. Customers receive a one-time PIN when they order, which allows them to access their pizza when it arrives - although this does involve them leaving their home – albeit – briefly to collect the pizza on the street, which some would prefer to avoid.

H-E-B, the largest grocer in Texas, has announced it will be partnering with 
Udlev to roll out its own driverless delivery programme later this year. The specially-designed vehicles will be fitted with temperature-controlled compartments for fresh, frozen and dry food and will be capable of the same speeds as regular delivery vans. 

In terms of grander scale deliveries, the retail conglomerate 
Walmart has partnered with the technology company Gatik "in the hopes of moving customer orders from its supercentre in Rogers, Arkansas down a two-mile stretch of road in Bentonville to one of two nearby stores". Gatik has also modified three Ford Transit vans for similar use in California. These are currently in operation seven days a week; although they currently feature human safety drivers, too. 

Meanwhile, in China

There isn’t just movement in the US. Neolix, a Chinese start-up, recently began full-scale production of affordable self-driving delivery vehicles, which it has been testing quietly on Chinese campuses for several months. 

In fact, the testing phase has been and gone. Dubbed a success, full-scale production of the vehicles has begun and soon they will be moved off campus and into the real world to deliver pizzas, and many other things, to people in major Chinese cities before the year is out. They may well even get there before the US does. 

So far, it's looking as though driverless delivery vehicles will be commonplace before domestic driverless vehicles will. This is no surprise, as they will be largely transporting 'goods' as opposed to people. And while the possibilities of this are naturally exciting, it does beg the question: what happens to the human driver? 

The 50 foot solution 

photo: istock

Whenever autonomy is discussed, the question of what will happen to the drivers closely follows. There is a global concern about autonomy resulting in unemployment en masse 

But this is where the importance of the 'human touch' in delivery driving comes in. While a redesigned delivery vehicle could well automate the A-B element of bringing the item from the depot to its destination, there's still the need to get it to the door and often into the hands, of the customer.
is something even the most advanced autonomous technology The Ford Motor Co has hypothesised that eventually a two-legged robot could take over, should we trust a ronot to access our homes, but the global delivery company UPS has other ideas. 

Imogen Pierce, the head of communications at the van-centric technology company Arrival, who are partnered with UPS, calls this "the 50-foot solution". It grapples with the notion that the last 50 feet, between the vehicle door and the customer door, is the last thing to solve. And it needs a human to do it. Building entry, after all, is rarely straightforward and many deliveries require someone to receive them.

There's every possibility that humans will still be necessary in the courier world, even if they aren’t driving the vehicles. Of course, if their jobs are safe, this will mean a drastically changing role for the drivers themselves:

“For some customers, the person delivering may be the only person they see that day. We need to be mindful of not making human contact a luxury but making it an easier thing to get. Autonomy should help with that.” 

Solve the 50-foot problem, solve the problem of the human’s place in an autonomous world. At least, that’s the theory. But hey, these are the questions that need to be asked and answered. 
Over and over again, in every language.  

Until we get there, we suggest you sit back and enjoy your pizza.


Join the debate! Will vanlife ever reliably be the same again once autonomy takes hold – and will the delivery drivers find their place within it? 







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