How Driverless Vehicles Will Soon Deliver Your Shopping
Supermarkets have long delivered but imagine having your groceries ferried to you by way of a self-driving car.
Never mind crowds, this would remove all human interaction from the weekly shop…to the delight of agoraphobics and despairing dads everywhere.
Well, that’s a scenario a tech firm from Oxford hope to make a reality. Moreover, it’s one they will trial as early as 2023, thanks to a helping hand from Wilkinson no less.
StreetDrone specialise in proprietary autonomous vehicle technology.
Established by lifelong friends Mike Potts and Mark Preston (a one-time McLaren engineer), the duo have graduated from sharing a paper round to overseeing deliveries of a very different nature.
With a customer base spanning three continents Messrs’ Potts and Preston can already point to serious interest in their product offering. That’s likely to soar in the wake of Wilco’s investment.
A financial shot in the arm to the tune of £3m has quickly led to trials being sanctioned by Oxford City Council. Now permission is being sought from national and European safety agencies also.
Providing that follows, a handful of electric vehicles will transport shopping from stores to households with nobody behind the wheel.
They will do so with the aid of indicative pads built into sections of road and pavement throughout well mapped zones.
As you’d expect, remote operators will be on standby to monitor the journey and override via video and wireless tech should problems arise. As yet, we’re unsure if spilt milk falls into that category.
The Last Mile
Seen as a viable alternative to diesel vans and the pollution associated with them, a self-driving fleet of zero emission delivery vehicles could represent the future. In fact, it almost certainly does.
By StreetDrone’s own admission however, that future remains some way off.
That’s because this trial run, significant though it may be, will be somewhat limited in scope.
Unsurprisingly, urban roads will be avoided like a busy checkout. Routes will be programmed within suburban areas and throughout newly built housing estates. Speeds will also be restricted to just 20mph.
Even so a number of orders will be fulfilled autonomously, covering what the retailers have dubbed the ‘last mile’ – this the final stage of a parcel’s journey from a distribution hub to a delivery address.
To coincide with the Wilco announcement images of the first prototype have now been released.
Labelled the Pix-E it is surprisingly compact and has been compared – not unfairly - to the Renault Twizy, albeit minus room even for a single passenger. It’s lightweight and narrow by design.
In theory 'Pix-E' will appear as a checkbox in Wilco’s online checkout, an intriguing alternative to standard and soon to be boring collection and courier options.
It will transport shopping in eight lockers, designed to protect goods en route. A range of 80km will ensure it safely navigates through those lower speed areas.
Wilkinson have certainly thrown their weight (and money) behind the project, going as far as to secure a place on the StreetDrone board for WilkinsonFuture director Jonathan Griffin.
Chief Executive Jerome Saint-Marc outlined their thinking.
“One of the key reasons we’re backing the team at StreetDrone is that this sort of transformative technology can have a huge and positive impact for hard-working families – and it’s this ethos that runs through all of our work at Wilko. Ultimately, it has the potential to reduce costs for customers when deployed in the retail sector. We look forward to supporting them on this journey.”
Time will tell just how far that journey goes. Quite literally.
At this moment StreetDrone have ruled out motorway deliveries, conceding the technology falls well short of such route planning.
In fact, CEO Potts is upfront in saying it could be a decade or more before their vehicles are released on anything like a large scale.
Interestingly, he has also downplayed the short-term scalability of autonomous vehicles generally, citing Waymo’s $3-5bn investment in driverless tech for, as yet, very little reward.
StreetDrone feel local delivery systems will emerge before fully-fledged driverless passenger cars, which could still be “several decades” away.
While theirs is not exactly an optimistic outlook, they have a greater insight than most. Indeed the team went as far as to release their own Safety Report into autonomous vehicles last year, not dissimilar to the Auto Trader’s annual Market Reports.
Automated Lane Keeping
Despite their personal reservations cars with Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) will be permitted on UK roads later this year in what many are seeing as a big step towards autonomous vehicles.
Safe and sensible caveats will apply of course. Drivers must stay alert at all times (nothing new there then) and in a position to resume control within 10 seconds of a warning alarm sounding.
Returning to the Wilco link-up Potts said:
“We are delighted to have the support of a major UK retailer. Wilko will help us realise our aim of bringing autonomous last-mile services to UK and European roads, to the benefit of both retailers and consumers.
Our technology, aligned with Wilko’s determined strategy to enrich the lives of its customers, is the perfect fusion of our capability and their requirement.”
StreetDrone proudly proclaim to offer the world’s first subscription based autonomous driving software, along with the first “open source” autonomous vehicles in Europe.
This isn’t strictly unchartered territory, however.
Back in 2017 US engineers Starship Technologies partnered with Co-Op and Tesco to unveil and unleash delivery robots in Milton Keynes. Within three years the town had the world’s largest autonomous robot fleet.
With robots also roaming US campuses, the company announced they had successfully completed 1 million deliveries by January 2021. A further 600,00 have followed in the eight months since.
But it’s the Pix-E which is currently the talk of the retail sector and beyond. Driverless delivery drones clearly form part of Wilco’s commitment to strengthening its ‘omnichannel model’.
For them this presents a rare opportunity to steal a march on their bigger name rivals. But the arrival of the Pix-E is arguably of greater significance to the automotive industry, delivering far more than the weekly shop.