You’ve likely heard of Google’s driverless cars; maybe you’ve even seen one on the road. The technology is still in the works in terms of autonomous cars for personal use (unless you count Tesla’s autopilot update, which, to be fair, does sort of count), but 2016 is on track to produce the world’s first autonomous delivery system.
A company called Starship Technologies plans to launch two pilot projects this year, one of which will be in the UK and the other in the United states. Each involve testing driverless vehicles designed to make short-distance deliveries of relatively small packages.
The vehicle won’t be on the road; it’s basically a big crockpot on wheels that can carry loads about as large and heavy as two big bags of groceries. It’s equipped with a GPS so customers can track the robot’s delivery path in real time, and can only be unlocked via the customer’s smartphone.
Starship Technology’s delivery vehicles are almost completely autonomous, but they are monitored constantly by human operators that can take manual control if necessary. They have speakers installed so that operators can communicate with surrounding people if necessary.
As absurdly futuristic as it sounds, Starship Technology estimates that autonomous delivery will cost one tenth to one fifteenth of the cost of conventional delivery.
The unconventional alternative is a possible solution to the most prevalent logistical issue for delivery companies; finding the cheapest and most reliable way to deliver a product that final mile, to a consumer’s private home.
Online shopping tycoon Amazon.com got a lot of media attention by exploring the flying drone option, but Starship Technology might have Amazon beat with its driverless cars. They’re more economical than flying drones, and less likely to break.
Michael Kay is the co-director of operations research in the Industrial Systems and Engineering Department at North Carolina State University. He also believes that driverless cars are a more reliable option:
“If you want to eliminate almost any required trips to the store, then, to do that cost effectively, you really have to have ground transport… Drones are fine for high-priority, high-value products, but your typical gallon of milk kind of thing, it’s not as economical to do with a drone as it is with surface technology.”
Kay predicts that within the next decade or two, 80% to 85% of all home deliveries will be made by self-driving vehicles: “In 15 to 20 years, you’ll never have to leave your home for any type of shopping.”
However, Kay’s not sure that Starship’s technique of using public sidewalks is going to hold up in the long run.
“Operating on sidewalks probably makes sense in other countries but not for the U.S.” He went on to explain how the US was mostly sprawled out and perfect for driverless cars, unlike Europe which has developed expensive public transit systems that may be less compatible with the driverless car world.
Regardless, people can expect to see attempts at this service sometime in the near future. Whether it will be a graceful or rocky transition for society remains to be seen,