March 11th 2019
Autonomous delivery vehicle (ADV) firms like Udelv, AutoX and Nuro, which are growing in number in the United States, are likely not only to have a powerful impact on the delivery services market but also to boost the adoption of self-driving car technology.
“Delivery is one of the largest costs for merchants,” points out Daniel Laury, cofounder and CEO of Udelv, underlining: “Smaller stores are subjected to exponentially higher delivery costs than their largest competitors because the volume of deliveries is significantly smaller and the client-density sparser in the same geographical area.” Laury believes that self-driving vehicles can help solve this problem. His startup is one of a number of companies that have recently launched pilot tests for driverless delivery services in the United States. He tells us: “We recently signed major partnerships, including one with San Francisco Bay Area-based online grocery service Farmstead, as well as multiple merchants from florists and restaurants to bakers and auto-parts manufacturers. To date we’ve completed over 1,000 successful deliveries with these clients.” And this within just a few months.
However, Udelv’s competitors have not been standing still. Last June, Nuro announced that it had signed a partnership with the Kroger grocery chain in Arizona, while at the same time Robomart was making plans to launch the first-ever ‘driverless grocery store’ in Santa Clara close to San Francisco. Just two months later, AutoX began to trial its self-driving delivery service in San José in the Bay Area in tandem with farm products distributor GrubMarket. Each of these fledgling companies has its own particular approach, but what they all have in common is the desire to make goods deliveries easier, cheaper and more efficient for both the merchant and the consumer.
Autonomous vehicles specifically designed for delivery
Following the advent of drones for transporting medical supplies and ground-based robots for delivering meals or parcels, autonomous vans could revolutionise the delivery sector without changing consumer habits. Explains Daniel Laury: “Merchants can provide better service to customers with deliveries that fit into their daily lives, rather than disrupt them. Udelv allows users to schedule round the clock deliveries to any location, knowing that your address and parcel information isn’t shared with strangers.” Some of the vehicles have been specifically designed with this in mind. The Udelv self-driving vehicle looks exactly like a smallish van and is capable of delivering up to18 orders at a time, while the Nuro shuttle reminds you of a strong box on wheels with two compartments. Robomart has gone so far as to create a shop on wheels, along the same lines as the Moby Mart designed by Wheelys. Meanwhile, AutoX “has also established a prototype ‘mobile store’, which (…) will further reduce traffic and parking,” claims COO Jewel Li. The advantage of this approach is that customers get to see the merchandise for themselves and can pick what they want, just as if they were shopping at the market. The whole process is made faster by the fact that it avoids checkout-based payment, rather like the Amazon Go system. Of course saving customers time is one of the main reasons for delivering goods to their homes, and especially if we are talking about self-driving delivery. One of the key aims of driverless vehicles, which are supposed to be safer than when human beings are at the wheel – and this is even more the case out on the highway because robots don’t need to take a break – is to ensure more efficient delivery. AutoX’s Jewel Li predicts that "in the long term, this technology will reduce by 40% people's travel just for running errands."
Still partial - but promising - autonomy
But can ADVs really be said to exist at this point in time? At the moment, given the risks and the regulations in force, most ‘driverless’ vehicles are in reality still under the control of a human being, whether that means someone sitting behind the wheel to make sure everything goes according to plan or an operator steering the vehicle remotely. This is the case with Robomart, for instance. As its vehicles are steered by remote control, the company does not need to apply for a permit to trial its technology solution. Meanwhile, Daniel Laury tell us: “To increase safety and manoeuvrability, Udelv has also created one of the world’s most advanced tele-operation technologies, which allows us to monitor the fleet and take control of the vehicle, if need be, at any moment in time." Another indication that the current technology has room for improvement is the fact that the test vehicles usually run more slowly than traditional vans. “Most autonomous delivery startups are using low speed vehicles that are capped at 25 miles per hour or unable to run on 35 miles-per-hour highways," points out Jewel Li.
However, since these vehicles are not intended to transport human beings, the legislation in the United States is evolving rapidly. “In fact, 36 out of 50 US states have now enacted legislation in favour of autonomous driving," points out the Udelv CEO, whose company is cooperating with the authorities in this field. He explains: “Our vans are purpose-built to carry deliveries, not people. This means that they can handle situations differently, don’t need to take into account the comfort or necessities of people inside the vehicle and will always prioritise human safety. For this reason, we anticipate that ADVs will be operating on public roads before autonomous human transport vehicles do." In other words, “delivery is a more immediate large-scale application of autonomous driving because ADVs do not carry people, therefore reducing the risks and challenges of the technology," he underlines. Nevertheless, going forward, this might also serve as a useful test stage for transporting people as well. The AutoX COO does not rule out this kind of progression. “Just as a regular vehicle is perfectly useful for deliveries, (autonomous vehicles designed for goods delivery can) also provide the flexibility of moving into different transportation spaces after the delivery market,” argues Jewel Li.