While some of the autonomous vehicles (AVs) targeting the delivery market look like normal sedan and SUV automobiles or vans, others are futuristic-looking driverless “pods”.
While some of the autonomous vehicles (AVs) targeting the delivery market look like normal sedan and SUV automobiles or vans, others are futuristic-looking driverless “pods”.
( Source: Adobe Stock)

Specialty AVs Who are delivery vehicle market leaders?

Editor: Nicole Kareta

While many people think of self-driving passenger cars when they think of autonomous vehicles, there are several other categories of AVs that are driving development and adoption of the technology. One of these is delivery.

In 2016, consulting firm McKinsey & Co. predicted that in the future, almost 80 % of deliveries will be made by autonomous technology. The so-called “last mile” of journeys can be the most critical, and for some companies, the most expensive, as routes typically become individualized and much more difficult to navigate. McKinsey estimates the market for last-mile delivery is worth USD86 billion and is growing.

According to Bryce Paden, the co-founder of i2i Labs, a technology research and commercialization agency, “Autonomous delivery is one of the core emerging technologies in retail today. The entire retail ecosystem revolves around the supply chain, and delivery tech is changing the way that chain functions.”

Sterling Hawkins, co-founder of retail technology consulting agency Center for Advancing Retail and Technology (CART), says that automating deliveries could save companies 80 to 90 % of the costs associated with human completion of such tasks. Consumer goods, health essentials, and food (both groceries and restaurant take-out) are all applicable businesses where automated delivery can make a huge impact.

While much press has been given to efforts such as Amazon’s to use aerial drones for delivering parcels, it’s safe to say that only a small sliver of packages could or should be delivered aerially, due to practical size and weight considerations. Other concepts being weighed include headless, dog-like four-legged walking robots developed by companies such as German auto parts firm Continental.

“I think what it really boils down to is whether or not these new delivery mechanisms can make online grocery or online product delivery better, faster, cheaper, more reliable,” says Ethan Goodman, a senior vice president of innovation at retail marketing consultant The Mars Agency. “If it’s drones, great. Self-driving cars, great. Bots, great. But if it happens to be the same guy delivering their groceries today, and the retailers and these third parties figure out how to do that really cheap, then that’s what’s going to matter.”

While some of the autonomous vehicles (AVs) targeting the delivery market look like normal sedan and SUV automobiles or vans, others are futuristic-looking driverless “pods” (some of which can convert between passenger and delivery use). Still others have no passenger or driver compartment whatsoever and are much smaller than either of the first two vehicle types (roughly one-quarter the size of an automobile, or even smaller than this).

Early tests

Tests and pilots of various delivery AVs are underway in various locales around the world, but for now, things are “at the experimental stage,” according to Nick Jones, the chief growth officer of retail and brand marketing agency Geometry, who believes that current delivery “activity [is] very much in the ‘publicity stunt’ phase,” with retailers in a learning period and fairly far from rollouts of AVs at scale.

In Houston, startup Nuro is testing its delivery AVs with pharmacy partner CVS. Nuro designed its 680-kilogram prototype vehicle, referred to as the R1, from the ground up. The R1 has no passenger or driver space; instead, there are four carrying compartments for groceries and packages—two on each side of the vehicle. The rest of the space in the R1—which is approximately chest-height to a human and half as wide as a regulation automobile—is taken up by sensors, electronics, and the vehicle’s motor. Early pilots of the R1 have been with Fry’s Food and Drug in Scottsdale, Arizona; grocery store Kroger in Phoenix, Arizona; and Domino’s Pizza and Walmart in Houston, Texas.

In 2020, Nuro began testing its R2, which is similar in size and shape to the R1, but is more durable, is temperature-controlled, and features larger compartments. Nuro began evaluating the R2 in California in the counties of Santa Clara and San Mateo; the company has sought permits to begin testing in other U.S. states as well. In February 2020, Nuro won the right to deploy up to 5,000 of its delivery AVs in Houston.

In Irvine, California, Amazon has begun testing a small six-wheeled mini-AV it calls the Scout that looks a bit like a large box on wheels. Designed to take Amazon Prime orders directly from urban distribution points to customers, the vehicles—which for now are accompanied by human minders—have already been tested in Washington State.

But perhaps the furthest along of any of these competitors is San Francisco-based Starship Technologies, which since 2016 has been deploying its rolling-box-like AVs on the campus of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia and in the borough of Milton Keynes in the UK. In 2019 and 2020, the company introduced vehicles to the campuses of Purdue University, Northern Arizona University, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Houston, the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Mississippi, and Bowling Green State University. So far, between all these placements, Starship’s vehicles have completed more than 50,000 deliveries.

Important numbers

As knowledge is gained from these early trials, producers of consumer goods will likely adjust pack sizes, packaging, and assortments of products for different delivery vehicle types. Currently, three numbers are key for determining the usefulness of delivery AVs: speed, range, and the total weight of goods that can be transported. Speed is often determined by the route delivery vehicles take to their destination; many companies’ vehicles are designed to navigate streets where traffic is limited or low-speed; others are not designed to operate on streets but on sidewalks and/or within buildings. Range is typically measured in kilometers and can be tied to electric charging capacity (most delivery AVs are electric). The maximum weight of goods being transported usually correlates to the size of the AV, with vehicles like Nuro’s being designed to transport orders or packages for a very limited number of customers (under 10). Larger driverless “pod”-type vehicles are designed to carry van-size loads of packages and/or operate as self-contained mobile retail stands.

Different designs

Companies that are developing delivery AVs along the lines of a “pod” concept include Robomart and Toyota, the latter of which has designed its “e-pellet” concept AV to be convertible for either passenger, delivery, or retail use. Milpitas, California-based Robomart wants its AVs to function as rolling retail stands where purchases could be made electronically without the need for a sales clerk via smartphone apps (the vehicle would sense which items were removed from it via RFID and charge customers accordingly).

Companies that are developing or currently operating full car- or van-size AVs that typically have a backup safety driver—even though the vehicles are usually operating at Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Level 3 and above—include Boxbot, Uber, Udelv, and AutoX.

Uber is using traditional automotive AVs from companies like Volvo to fill in for its UberEats drone pilot program to drive and deliver restaurant food orders where and when drones are unable to fly. Boxbot, Udelv, and AutoX all are used for autonomous grocery deliveries. (In each of these cases, backup safety drivers are required to be in the vehicles by law.)

Companies that are developing smaller delivery AVs that lack space for a driver and/or passengers (most look like large boxes on wheels) include Nuro (see above), Starship (see above), Refraction AI, and a healthy number of Chinese startups (see below).

And finally, companies developing delivery AVs designed for use within buildings include Aethon, Savioke, Magazino, Kiva Systems, and Fetch Robotics. Aethon and Savioke are specifically targeting hospitality, hospital/healthcare, manufacturing, and restaurant/cafeteria environments for their AVs, which largely look like tall cylinders that can contain user-removable trays. In Magazino’s, Kiva Systems’ and Fetch Robotics’ cases, warehouses are the primary application for those firms’ AVs.

Chinese delivery AV firms

A host of delivery AV companies have been established and are operating in China. They include Aisimba, Cainiao, Ele.me, Xingshen, Meituan-Dianping, Neolix, Yiqing, Suning, Yogo Robot, and Keenon Robotics.

State-supported, Wuhan-based Aisimba’s “Little Lion” delivery AVs look like a grid of rectangular letterboxes on wheels. Employing artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning, the Little Lion is designed for low- or no-traffic streets and sidewalks; its range on a single charge is 60 kilometers. Aisimba claims the Little Lion is the lowest-cost delivery AV (designed for outdoor use) in the Chinese market.

Hangzhou-based logistics firm Cainiao is partially owned by Chinese conglomerate AliBaba, with one of the aims being for Cainiao’s AVs to ultimately make deliveries for AliBaba within China. Cainiao’s other partners and investors include SF Express, Yintai Group, Forchn Holdings, and Fosun Group. The company uses cloud- and big-data intelligence to support tens of millions of deliveries in China and abroad. Cainiao teamed with Chinese AV platform maker Robosense to come up with the boxy G Plus AV, which can deliver packages at speeds up to 15 km/h. The G Plus employs facial recognition to make sure that its deliveries only go to intended recipients.

Shanghai-based food-delivery service firm Ele.me is also owned by AliBaba. During the coronavirus pandemic (see below), the company deployed cube-like roving delivery AVs within hotels where people were being quarantined. The company had previously tested tall, cylindrical delivery AVs at various office buildings in Shanghai.

For AliBaba online-goods competitor JD.com, Chinese AV startup Xingshen developed a rectangular delivery AV that’s approximately 1.7 meters long and has 30 separate carrying compartments (15 per side) that can carry a total of 200 kilograms.

Meituan-Dianping is a merger of the Beijing-based Meituan and Shanghai-based Dianping restaurant delivery and group-buying firms. Since the merger, the combined enterprise has handled tens of billions of food delivery transactions in China. In 2018, the company began tests of three different delivery AV scenarios—one where its mobile-box-like AVs took restaurant orders inside a mall to human delivery drivers waiting outside, one where its AVs took food from outside delivery people to consumers inside an office building, and one where its AVs handled entire restaurant-to-customer deliveries from start to finish. In February 2020 amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the company began a pilot of its delivery AVs in Beijing.

At the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Meituan-Dianping announced it would develop the Meituan Autonomous Platform (MAD) for delivery AVs along with chipmaker NVIDIA, AV firm iDriverPlus, AV connectivity company Uditech, and personal transportation builder Segway. At the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, in conjunction with French auto parts firm Valeo, Meituan-Dianping demonstrated its 2.8-meter-long-by-1.2-meter-wide-by-1.7-meter-high unmanned eDeliver4U AV, which can carry 17 takeaway meals to customers.

Based in Beijing, logistics startup Neolix produces smart, unmanned AVs with swappable batteries for three applications: mobile vending, security patrolling, and personal express delivery. The company’s vehicles come with a 2.4-cubic-meter payload space, multiple redundant safety systems, and Chinese search-engine firm Baidu’s Apollo open AV software platform. In September 2019, Neolix announced an order of 5,000 of its AVs from Dubai-based e-commerce company Noon.com.

Shenzhen-based Yiqing’s “Kwafuku” unmanned delivery AVs can travel up to 100 kilometers and can carry up to 750 kilograms. The company has provided vehicles to carry materials at industrial parks belonging to Chinese and Taiwanese firms Huawei, Foxconn, and SF Express.

For Yiqing, security of its vehicles is a critical quality. As Liu Ming, the founder Yiqing and former director of the Intelligent Autonomous Driving Center of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, says, Yiqing’s customers “like Huawei, [like] Fuji Production Enterprises, like Kang have very high requirements for confidentiality. Like Huawei’s new mobile phone to be released, or iPhone to be released, it may be top secret from the appearance of the case to the device list, let alone the value of the whole machine, so it has very high requirements for the security of transportation.”

Chinese retail giant Suning’s AI-equipped Xinglong One AV is designed to reach speeds up to 80 km/h. The company is already using the Xinglong One in its logistics warehouses. During the coronavirus pandemic, Suning employed delivery AVs equipped with 5G connectivity for its convenience stores, allowing instantaneous delivery of many items within a 3 km radius.

Shanghai-based Yogo Robot makes tall, cylindrical delivery AVs that are designed to operate in private office buildings. They can receive packages from an outside delivery person in a common lobby space, then use the building’s elevators to deliver the packages to individual recipients.

Keenon Robotics’ tall, cylindrical delivery AVs also take items to recipients within buildings, while the company’s Peanut commercial guiding robots assume the form of a half-height animatronic “concierge” that can guide visitors around indoor building sites, including hotels.

In addition to the above companies, Beijing-based firm UISEE has developed a hardware/software delivery-focused AV platform called U-Drive that can be used by a variety of disparate delivery AVs. Designed to be an open and self-upgradeable platform, U-Drive will likely attract developers to create custom delivery applications for it just as several have for Baidu’s Apollo (used by Neolix, see above).

Robo-taxi conversions during the pandemic

During the coronavirus pandemic, because of social-distancing provisions, many robo-taxi services had to stop functioning because passengers could not be in close proximity to each other and/or AV backup safety drivers. In some cases, such as those of Pony.ai and Aptiv, companies converted their robo-taxis to delivery vehicles and brought food and/or medical supplies to those in need during the crisis.

Due to the pandemic, Google sister company Waymo shut down its Waymo One ride-hailing service—much of which featured backup safety drivers in its vehicles—but the firm plans to restart it soon (it resumed AV testing in Arizona as of May 2020). It should be noted that Waymo has already had delivery partnership pilots with Walmart, AutoNation, and United Parcel Service.

For many AV companies, the pandemic has been a chance to reflect and catch a bit of breath. As delivery AV firm Yiqing founder Liu Ming says, “If the unmanned delivery is likened to a gem on the beach, this [coronavirus] epidemic will bring out the gem at the same time as the delivery team’s ebb and flow. From the maturity curve of unmanned distribution, [the pandemic] indirectly stimulated the imagination space of unmanned distribution, and public awareness was refreshed.”