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The robots are coming to the pavements of Milton Keynes, a town in southern England. It’s become a testbed for the world’s first robot delivery service. The company behind this pioneering scheme is Starship Technologies, a startup founded by two co-founders of Skype.

The new package delivery service allows customers to order anything online, from any online retailer, and get it delivered on-demand using autonomous robots.  Henry Harris-Burland, VP of Marketing at Starship Technologies told Auto Futures how it works: “Individuals can access and take advantage of the delivery service through Starship’s official app (iOS and Android). Once signed-up, people will receive a ‘personal address’ in place of their home address or whichever location they normally get packages delivered to.”

He adds: “This personal address is the location of a local delivery facility, run by Starship, and the customer will be notified within minutes via the app when their package has arrived at their desired location. They can then choose a time for one of Starship’s robots to deliver the package to their home, place of work or any other location, while also being able to track the robot’s journey in real time via the app.”

Harris-Burland says the robots are smart and safe as they have travelled over 125,000 miles around the world, completing tens of thousands of autonomous deliveries. “The robots have many sensors to ensure they travel safely on the pavements. Stereo cameras, ultrasonic sensors, radars and machine learning build an awareness bubble around the robot so it can detect cars, pedestrians and anything else. The robot travels at max speed 4mph which is walking pace.”

Car Makers Attempt to Take a Slice of the Action

In terms of the big OEMs, Ford and Renault are leading the way in introducing self-autonomous technology to the delivery sector. Ford recently announced that Washington D.C. will be the fourth city to join its testing program as it aims to deploy its self-driving taxi and delivery service by 2021. It’s spending $4 billion over the next four years to develop its AV transportation-as-a-service network, self-driving systems integration, autonomous-vehicle research and advanced engineering. 

Ford is already trying to get a slice of the action.  It’s testing the response of customers to non-human delivery of pizzas via its partnership with Domino’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

France’s Renault ‘s is taking a slightly different approach to delivery. Its EZ-PRO consists of an autonomous pod that can hold both parcels and a human concierge who supervises the delivery of goods and services and its fleet.

In EZ-PRO, the leader pod hosts a human concierge who supervises the delivery of goods and services and its fleet. Released from today’s constraints of driving, the concierge can focus on value-added tasks, such as supervising the itinerary planning and driverless robo-pods, or ensuring efficient and customized service, such as in-person, premium delivery of groceries or fragile objects.

The multifunctional aspect of the EZ-PRO is something that helps it stand out from competitors like Toyota’s e-Palette and Mercedes Vision Urbanetic.

Talking to Auto Futures at the Paris Motor Show, Christian Ledoux, Renault’s Global Director of Mobility Services, says: “We can deliver on demand at the expected time, the expected object with a concierge service as well. We are not removing completely the human…but we are transfering the driving task towards a more value-added task which is to offer a delivery service that’s very personalized.”

Renault is one of the top manufacturer of electric utility vehicles in Europe and undoubtedly wants to retain its position. The company reports that 78 percent of folks will be living in cities in Europe by 2030, with deliveries expected to grow by 20 percent. Last-mile delivery costs of a package amount to 35 to 50 percent, which amounted to $86 billion around the world in 2017.

Overcoming the Challenges of Food Delivery

Partnership, such as Ford’s initiative with Domino’s, may mark the start of a new era when it comes to food delivery, but what could hold it back?

It can be difficult predicting human behaviour, especially when it comes to food. The project in Michigan will be the first time that a food service has used driverless cars to interact with actual consumers. But the benefit of having a more streamlined delivery times and having fewer pizzas damaged in any handling mishaps is appealing. Customers not having to deal with the awkward moment when you can’t find any change to tip the driver will become a thing of the past. This reduces price points, making delivered pizzas more affordable. For students who are low on money that will be very enticing. 

Convenience to consumers is huge, in fact it’s become an obsession. Henry Harris-Burland from Starship Technologies talks up the value of his company’s service: “The benefits are convenience and peace of mind for the customer, whilst drastically increasing efficiency and saving money for the retailer as well. Delivery vans sometimes attempt delivery 3 days in a row when you’re not at home. It is very inefficient. For the customer they never will receive a ‘missed delivery slip’ again. No more missed packages, or leaving parcels in ‘not so safe’ places outside.”

From a business point of view, it’s a no-brainer for the likes of Domino’s which delivers 1 billion pizzas worldwide each year; lower fuel consumption, consistent delivery times, lower insurance costs, no thefts, controllable temperatures to make sure food for customers is safe, therefore resulting in less waste. With Domino’s employing more than 100,000 drivers just in the U.S, creating a driverless fleet could also save it millions of dollars. 

The benefit to car manufacturers and food companies is also very apparent, but will it make a difference to you and me the consumer? That depends on what you want when it comes to your food service. Whether you want to be greeted by a human or robot, the choice will soon be yours. 

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