Concepts such as the Vision Van—unveiled by Mercedes-Benz in September 2016—are a clear indication that autonomous vehicle development work isn’t confined to the higher-profile passenger car segment. Helped by the popularity of ecommerce and home delivery, freight transport and delivery vehicle fleets have been forced to think about how they operate, which has led to a number of next-generation commercial vehicles.
Vision Van is an electric, connected van equipped with delivery drones and full connectivity—from distribution center to consignee.
“We wanted to re-invent delivery vans, asking ourselves first and foremost, what is the main purpose of the interior?” explained Kai Sieber, Director of Design – Brands and Operations, Mercedes-Benz. “Firstly, it is to get in and out, so this means keeping the steering wheels and pedals out of the way, creating more useable space for the packages in the back of the van. The second part of the story here is more complex and part of a new business model that deals with drones, robots, and single shot loading.”
So the German manufacturer has big autonomy ideas across the entire vehicle range, and one company that is subsequently working with parent company Daimler is Starship Enterprises. Founded by the people who created Skype, Starship Enterprises builds delivery robots and currently has over 100 of them running around six cities in five countries—the U.S., the UK, Germany, Switzerland, and Estonia. The purpose of the robots is to get around the issue of last-mile delivery, which causes a bottleneck in distribution and accounts for up to 50% of transport costs.
“The robot travels on the sidewalk at up to 4 mph and takes up about as much room as a pedestrian,” explained Henry Harris-Burland, VP of Marketing at Starship Technologies. “It has sophisticated obstacle-detection technology so it won’t bump into you; it will move around you.”
Harris-Burland said that the robot is “99% autonomous” because there are “situations a robot finds itself in that technology can’t solve right now.” Instead, the units are monitored by a team of humans in a control room who can take control at any time.
Capable of carrying up to 10 kg (22 lb)—roughly three bags of groceries—the robots have completed tens of thousands of miles on the pavement and met millions of people.
“The majority of people who see the robot ignore it,” said Harris-Burland. “They may notice it, but then they get on with their lives. Theoretically, it could be stolen, but there hasn’t been one theft yet—helped because it has nine cameras, a siren if you try and tamper with it or pick it up, and two-way audio, allowing us to scream at the thief.”
The robots are carried by Robovan, which is where Daimler comes in.
“This parcel delivery vehicle is loaded up with Starship robots, travels around the neighborhood, dropping them off to deliver parcels (communication is via text message), and picking them up after that have delivered the goods. From our economic modelling, we can increase driver efficiency by up to 300%,” claimed Harris-Burland.
To get to this point hasn’t been easy for Starship Technologies, and Harris-Burland is aware that other challenges lie ahead.
“It is an emerging industry—there are about 10 other companies building delivery robots right now. We need regulation—for the majority of places we operate in, we need to seek permissions and get approvals,” he explained. “We have a national law in Estonia; state-wide laws in Idaho, Florida, and Wisconsin; and there are tens of cities that require permits because of the laws. But with growth in ecommerce, there are going to be more vans and cars out on the road. With delivery robots, we want to take them off the road, reduce congestion and pollution, and replace them with robots.”
Elsewhere in the UK—London, specifically, autonomous grocery delivery trials took place in June. A 10-day real-world test of the CargoPod vehicle was conducted as part of the GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment) Project, which is led by research company TRL, together with Ocado Technology, a division of Ocado—the world’s largest online-only supermarket.
CargoPod, developed by Oxbotica, is guided by its state-of-the-art autonomy software system Selenium, which aims to provide real-time, accurate navigation, planning and perception in dynamic environments. The pod carries up to 128 kg (282 lb) of groceries and during the trial operated around a residential environment, completing grocery orders to 100 customers.
“The GATEway project is unique in that it considers the effect of automated vehicles on the movement of goods as well as the movement of people,” says Simon Tong, Principal Research Scientist at TRL and technical lead for the project. “This trial with Ocado Technology provides an ideal platform to help us understand how and where these vehicles could best operate and whether people would accept, trust, and like them as an automated delivery service in the city. We envisage that cities could benefit massively if deliveries could be made by quiet, zero emission, automated vehicles when congestion is minimal.”
“Last-mile delivery is a growing challenge as our cities become denser and more congested,” added Graeme Smith, CEO of Oxbotica. “In this new project we are working closely with Ocado Technology to deploy our Selenium autonomy system into a novel last-mile delivery application in Greenwich.”
While autonomous vehicles aren’t in the fleet for larger vehicles and operators, they are certainly on the radar.
“Platooning is an interesting concept going forward for delivery,” believes Christophe Domke, Director Commercial Vehicles, Mobility Practice, Frost & Sullivan. “On the light commercial side, there will be autonomous vehicles, inline, and then truck platooning will follow. The concept has big potential but there are challenges—mainly not on the technology but on the legislative and the business case. If you have truck platoons, the first truck has a driver, but there is no need for a driver in the second, third, fourth, and so on. However they need to be present by law. So why should fleet managers invest in these vehicle units and still have to pay the driver? There are big business-case challenges there.”