Autonomous Vehicles Roll Up for Last-Mile Delivery

Two startups this week took on autonomous local delivery, a service that could become one of the early commercial uses of self-driving vehicles.On January 30, Udelv sent a small self-driving van on a short loop through suburban San Mateo, Calif., to demonstrate a planned delivery service for grocery stores and other retailers. A grocer who participated in the demonstration said Udelv’s vans and ordering software could cut delivery costs in half and give customers a better idea of when their orders will arrive.

Also on Tuesday, Silicon Valley startup Nuro unveiled an even smaller autonomous delivery vehicle with no driver’s seat or steering wheel. It’s designed for neighborhood streets and is about half the width of a typical passenger car. The company also announced it has raised $92 million in two Series A rounds of funding.

Udelv and Nuro are the latest entrants into the last-mile delivery business, which has grown with the rise of online shopping. E-commerce giants and startups alike are looking at new technologies like drones and sidewalk-roaming robots to cut costs and delivery times, but the task may also be well suited to autonomous vehicles on the street.

In Udelv’s demonstration on Tuesday, its autonomous van made what the company called the world’s first such delivery run on public roads. It covered a 2.5-mile route from Draeger’s, a local market, to two nearby customers. As required by California law, a safety driver was at the wheel to take over if necessary, but the drive went flawlessly, Udelv said.

The startup, based in the neighboring town of Burlingame, designs and builds the vans itself using an electric drivetrain, chassis, sensors and other components from third parties. It won’t sell the vehicles but offer delivery as a service to companies. The vehicle has a conventional cab and can be driven manually, or even remotely over a cellular connection, Udelv CEO Daniel Laury said. Its cargo space is divided into separate compartments, each with its own door that customers can unlock with their phones using Udelv’s app.

The van’s limited mission made it easier to develop than self-driving cars designed for passengers, Laury said. The vehicle is designed exclusively for local deliveries, with a top speed of 25 MPH. It didn’t have to be designed for a comfortable ride or to deal with all possible driving and weather conditions that a long-range vehicle might run into. The van can go 60 miles between charges. It took about two years to develop, Laury said.

Unlike the major auto manufacturers, Udelv can start small, he said.

“There is a tremendous amount of business that we can do in states… that have great weather conditions, that have very nice roads, that have good driving policies,” Laury told The Connected Car. “I don’t see a Ford or a General Motors, or one of those large OEMs manufacturing a car for just California, for example.”

Udelv plans to put dozens of vans on the road this year in the San Francisco Bay Area. Under current state law, it can operate them autonomously in test mode with a safety driver as long as they’re not making deliveries. The vans can also be used for deliveries as long as they’re manually driven, Laury said.

The San Mateo demonstration was done in conjunction with Draeger’s, a small chain of upscale markets in the Bay Area, and Delivery Guys, which does deliveries for Draeger’s.

Udelv should help Draeger’s compete with big online retailers and with stores that use services like Instacart, said Richard Draeger, the owner of the chain.

Both Udelv’s ordering platform and its driverless vans should make deliveries cheaper and more efficient, Draeger said. He predicts the cost of a delivery will be cut at least in half, and even more once the service is running at full volume.

“That is the biggest hurdle for delivery going mainstream,” Draeger said.

Also, the current four-hour delivery window that customers get can be cut to one or two hours because Udelv’s app and back-end software will streamline the process, he said.

One thing a self-driving van can’t do is bring groceries to the customer’s door. That’s a tradeoff, but with a shorter time window, they’ll be more willing to stay home and wait for the van to arrive, Draeger said.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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