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Supermarket giant Kroger is using the road-going Nuro R1 to deliver online orders

When nobody delivers your stuff – By Nigel Parry

High tech and driverless – autonomous vehicles are heading our way!

The internet can be an amazing thing. A few weeks ago, a friend living in England posted an intriguing photo on Facebook. “Whenever I drive through Milton Keynes I see these little delivery drones trundling about. For some reason they make me giggle,” she posted. 

One comment said: “We saw one in the snow a few weeks back, they appear to have 6WD. Trundling along the redway [a shared use path for cyclists and pedestrians] delivering someone’s lunch faster than the cars were going.”

Starship Technologies’ multi-wheeled mini robots are delivering packages to addresses across Milton Keynes in the UK

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) are, simply put, vehicles that have no driver, but drive themselves. They are taking automated guided vehicles (AGVs) out of the warehouse or factory, and into the wider world where there are roads, traffic, pavements and people. They already come in a variety of shapes, sizes and applications, from full road-going vehicles to multi-wheeled mini robots that can mingle with pedestrians.

They do have features in common: they need to know where they are and where they are going (navigation), be able to get there (motive power), handle everything the outside world will throw at them (collision avoidance and obstacle detection), and often some sort of locking mechanism to make sure only the customer can get hold of the goodies inside (security).

Last-mile deliveries

While robots have been predicted to take over our lives for decades, there has been a veritable rash of AV launches and trials over recent months. Sensing technology and onboard intelligence seem finally to have delivered cost-effective versions of sci-fi nerds’ Asimov-like dreams.

No sniggering at the back please; Deutsche Bank has estimated that automation through the use of drones and robots can reduce last-mile delivery costs by as much as 80%. Tetra Pak surveyed e-retailers late last year and the results suggest that the ‘use of technology in order fulfilment and the last mile could cut delivery times to within 10 minutes of purchase by 2025.’ Billions of dollars in investment are pouring in.

Forget the fanciful PR spin of delivery drones (for now at least), but when Amazon is putting their reputation behind the Amazon Scout AV, we should take it seriously. Looking a little like an Esky on wheels, they developed it themselves and have six vehicles on field trials in the US North West. These deliver packages to homes, waiting outside for the owner to retrieve their delivery (the top pops open when they collect).

Specialist company Starship Technologies has a very similar-looking mini robot vehicle, able to deliver within a 6 km radius. These, as with some others, are designed to work for customers, who use their smartphones to order food or parcels, arrange a pickup and open the vehicle when it arrives. They can even track the AV in real time on their phone – a sort of UberEats meets intelligent mobile chilly bin. The company boasts 200,000 km of deliveries in 20 countries already, including grocery retailers and university campuses.

FedEx’s Sameday Bot is the choice for a Pizza Hut trial later this year

A company called Jingdong has had AVs trundling around Beijing for over a year. Ugly duckling award so far goes to FedEx’s Sameday Bot, which at least has more capacity than some mini AVs and is the choice for a Pizza Hut trial later this year. 

Kiwi robots (not from New Zealand) include one that looks like a litter bin to take food orders from a kitchen to an autonomous trike that itself carries four shin-high AVs to deliver over short distances.

Extending the range

Taking a different route (literally), the Ahold Delhaize USA supermarket chain is about to trial a roving convenience store, based on a road-going-size driverless vehicle from Robomart Inc. These will drive directly to customers, where scanning technology identifies what they have chosen and charges them.

In a test being conducted in Arizona with Waymo, formerly Google’s self-driving car project, AVs pick up customers at their homes and take them to a store to collect their orders.

Also in Arizona (the state is vying to blaze the trail for the technology), supermarket giant Kroger is using road-going AVs to deliver online orders. Self-driving technology company Nuro has developed a specific prototype vehicle, the R1, to handle the deliveries, which are attractively priced at US$5.95, after an initial trial with adapted Toyota Priuses. With a minivan type body and 40 km/h speed, these cover a much larger delivery range than their smaller, pavement-dwelling brethren. And the trial has just been extended to Houston, Texas.

One of the major selling points of these vehicles, large or small, is that they are all electric, reducing city pollution levels. Smaller versions avoid road driving entirely, potentially reducing congestion, although they also open up new avenues of customer service where your restaurant order comes to you without the need for a moped.

The upshot is that, almost simultaneously, driverless vehicles are being trialled for everything from grocery and package deliveries around town, to meals and even coffees within walking distance. And while the US is the home of many of the trials, these AV manufacturers are setting their sensors at a much wider market. 

My friend lives in the UK where a Starship service is already live: customer deliveries first arrive at a local Starship ‘depot’, the customer is notified and orders the actual delivery to their address when convenient to them.

Just the beginning

But this sort of ultra-clever robot is way off on the far horizon for little old New Zealand, surely? Actually no. Auckland startup Ohmio is already deep into development of their first AV, a people carrier that will be shuttling passengers around Christchurch Airport and slated for service later this year. 

Auckland startup Ohmio is already deep into development of their first AV, a people carrier, that is slated for service later this year

Sister company HMI Technologies is already experienced in intelligent transport management, and head of research and development Dr Mahmood Hikmet, who works for both companies, sees this as just the start of many wider applications.
“We’re building an autonomous vehicle platform,” he says. “It allows us to integrate new modules; we don’t see the passenger vehicle as the final thing, just one manifestation of the platform.”

That could include anything from container transport to baggage handling – and they are keen to work with partners to deliver vehicles for a specific application. “We don’t make assumptions; our goal is to help [an organisation] deliver their solution,” he adds.

With so many innovators onboard, there’s a real buzz about driverless deliveries. Or maybe it’s a quiet electric hum. Either way, they may be headed over our horizon quite soon.

Award-winning journalist Nigel Parry started writing for FTD over ten years ago, and has been covering logistics and supply chain issues in a number of countries for more than two decades; he can be contacted at nigel.parry@gmail.com

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