Technology

Autonomous Delivery Moves From Research Labs to the Streets

According to multinational consulting firm McKinsey & Company, by the year 2025 some 85 percent of last-mile deliveries will be carried by autonomous vehicles.

When we place an order with UberEats we expect the to food arrive within 20 minutes, tops. If we buy a T-shirt on Amazon, we can have it delivered to our door in a matter of hours. As consumers everywhere shift to online shopping and food ordering, suppliers are facing increasing competition and demand for faster and more reliable delivery services. Our current labor-intensive delivery methods may not be up to the challenge, but AI-powered methods are.

The development and integration of autonomous delivery systems is rapidly emerging as the leading solution for increasing delivery speed, efficiency and capacity. According to multinational consulting firm McKinsey & Company, by the year 2025 some 85 percent of last-mile deliveries will be carried by autonomous vehicles.

Use Cases

We are seeing billions of dollars in investments pouring into autonomous delivery. Although most of today’s startups tend to focus on grocery and restaurant meal delivery, the bigger ambition is to expand improved delivery across all manner of consumer goods. Let’s take a look at several autonomous delivery technology use cases.

Udelv – Ready-to-Use Autonomous Fleets for Grocery Delivery

Although traditional retail stores and chain markets are processing more and more online orders, running last- to middle-mile quick delivery of those orders can be expensive — and bringing their own autonomous delivery systems into service is also cost-prohibitive. A startup with a solution is Udelv. Founded in 2016, the California-based company provides ready-to-use autonomous vans and fleet management tools. When customers place an online order through retailers partnered with Udelv, the company’s autonomous vans will be dispatched to collect the items from the stores and drive them to the customer. Company vehicles are designed to carry up to 32 orders at speeds of up to 60 mph (100 kph). Udelv has already announced partnerships with retail giants Walmart and Draeger’s Market for grocery delivery, and has developed a support suite of fleet management, reporting, and operation tools.

Udelv autonomous delivery vehicle

Nuro – Cheaper Delivery, More Orders

Earlier this year, SoftBank’s Vision Fund pumped US$940 Million into California robotic-delivery technology startup Nuro. The investment shows Vision Fund’s confidence in the potential of both the autonomous delivery industry and in Nuro itself. Founded in 2016 by two pioneers from Google’s self-driving car project, Nuro is building electric vehicles and software tailored for in-town delivery (motto: “Delivering the future of local commerce, autonomously”). Its subcompact vehicles are designed to move efficiently through busy city traffic delivering groceries, meals or even dry-cleaning. Nuro has partnered with leading US supermarket chain Kroger Co. for driverless grocery delivery. Kroger Co says one of its goals in adopting the autonomous delivery service is reducing delivery charges to encourage more customers to buy groceries through their online and mobile platforms.

Nuro maximizes cargo space in its compact delivery vehicle

Meituan Dianping – tacking a Billion-Dollar Delivery challenge

Established in 2010, Meituan Dianping is the largest delivery service platform in China. The Beijing-based company served 350 million people and handled US$33.8 billion in transactions in just the first half of 2018; and its restaurant service alone delivers a staggering 178 meals per second. Meituan is aggressively pushing its autonomous delivery R&D to improve service speed and reduce costs on a massive scale. At CES 2019 in January the company introduced its Meituan Autonomous Delivery platform and announced partnerships with AI chip maker Nvidia and automotive supplier Valeo. Meituan is also developing its own intelligent unmanned drones and supercompact vehicles capable of on-demand delivery both to and inside buildings, and has conducted trials in Beijing and Shenzhen. Through its new platform, Meituan hopes to integrate resources from industry partners to fuel further commercial applications for autonomous delivery, similar to the plans of Foodora in North America and Grab in Southeast Asia.

Meituan’s novel autonomous delivery vehicle

The Future Is at Your Door

With huge investments in the field from the likes of Vision Fund and Meituan, it is clear that autonomous delivery is poised to become a multi-billion-dollar business. The increasing commercialization of advanced delivery services will be enabled by technological breakthroughs, the decreasing cost of hardware such as sensors, and of course the influx of capital.

Soon we may see intelligent robots and drones carrying virtually all kinds of goods inside buildings, along and above city streets, and even in suburbs and out in the countryside. There will be less waiting and more joy as consumers savour the convenience of prompt product deliveries and piping-hot meals at their front door.


Author: Ivan Zhou | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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