A self-driving electric delivery van has been dispatching groceries ordered online direct to customers' houses in the UK, as a part of a real-world autonomous distribution trial.
Although much attention has been lavished on the future potential of drones for delivering goods to homes and businesses, the next logical step for home delivery is more likely to be ground-based, in large part because of the many challenges involved in flying these small and potentially dangerous devices among and around people. Flying drones also have a much lighter cargo capacity, as well as smaller size constraints, when compared to wheeled vehicles, which don't have to fight gravity to stay airborne every inch of the journey.
Safely flying drones through cities chock full of overhead obstacles such as electric wires and traffic lights, not to mention the relatively unpredictable nature of both pedestrians and vehicular traffic, may be possible in the future, but because of the considerable road-based infrastructure already in place, autonomous ground vehicles have a much lower barrier to entry in the logistics and delivery sector. Self-driving passenger vehicles are already in the works in some cities, and many more companies are looking to bring their robotic vehicles to the streets in the near future, so using autonomous cars, vans, and trucks to deliver goods is not just possible, but most likely probable in the next few years.
One collaborative project has been sussing out the concept of autonomous electric delivery vehicles with a recent real-world trial in the UK, where a self-driving van called the CargoPod has been delivering groceries ordered online from Ocado to more than one hundred residential customers. The GATEway Project (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment), which seeks to "understand how automated vehicles can fit into our future urban mobility needs and the barriers we must overcome before these vehicles become a reality on our roads," collaborated with Ocado Technology and Oxbotica on this self-driving delivery trial.
The CargoPod autonomous electric delivery van is based on a Utility City vehicle from Garia, with a number of upgrades added to it, such as cameras, sensors, and lasers, which then informs the onboard computer running an autonomous operating system developed by Oxbotica. According to Oxbotica, the Selenium operating system "enables real-time, accurate navigation, planning and perception in dynamic environments," without relying on GPS to navigate. The CargoPod can carry a total of 128 kg (~282 lb) of delivery cargo at a time, and although the vehicle has a 25 mph (40 kph) top speed, the van was limited to just 5 mph during the trial because of local traffic speed restrictions.
"Uniquely, the focus of the study is both on the commercial opportunities of self-driving technology and how it functions alongside people in a residential environment. This, the third of four trials with the GATEway Project, is exploring the public’s perceptions and understanding of driverless delivery vehicles. Ocado Technology is using the trials to explore the logistics and practicalities of deploying self-driving vehicles as part of the last mile offering for the Ocado Smart Platform, an end-to-end solution for providing bricks and mortar grocery retailers around the world with a shortcut for moving online." - Oxbotica
"The UK has a rich history in the automotive sector, and through our modern Industrial Strategy the country is on the verge of leading the world in self-driving technology and the industrial opportunities it brings.
"The GATEway project takes us another step closer to seeing self-driving vehicles on UK roads, and has the potential to reduce congestion in urban areas while reducing emissions. Backed by government, this project firmly establishes the UK as a global centre for developing self-driving innovation." - Claire Perry, UK Minister of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy