Fully autonomous–that is, self-driving–cars remain years away. But we may soon inhabit a world where 80 percent of all parcels are delivered by other autonomous vehicles. Pharmacy and cannabis orders, groceries, and on-demand entertainment could come to you not in full-size cars and trucks, but rather in robots, high-tech carriages, wagons (yep, just like the one you had as a kid), and drones.
Why? Consumers increasingly expect fast fulfillment, not to mention free shipping. As online sales continue to expand, individual deliveries get increasingly expensive and complicated. (The U.S. is experiencing a trucking labor shortage.)
So Chinese retail giant JD.com has designed four-wheeled robots capable of traveling as far as five kilometers (3.1 miles); Japan’s SoftBank invested $1 billion in Nuro, which makes similar machines; Walmart partnered with autonomous robot maker Alert Innovation; and Kroger invested in Ocado Group, a British grocer known for robotic fulfillment. On-demand delivery service Postmates, meanwhile, will augment its workforce in Los Angeles with Serve, a four-wheeled autonomous rover that delivers up to 50 pounds of items and navigates city sidewalks using computer vision cameras and GPS. Similarly, venture-backed startups like Starship Technologies, Eliport, and Kiwibot are bringing consumers Dunkin’ Donuts and takeout meals. Other delivery bots, which customers typically track using apps, have roamed the sidewalks in Berkeley, California; Düsseldorf, Germany; and London–and the campus of George Mason University, near Washington, D.C.
Delivery drones are a focus for titans, like Amazon and Google, and scrappy startups. One named Elroy Air has built a drone that can carry 500 pounds and travel up to 300 miles. Amazon Prime Air plans to offer ultra-fast deliveries to those who live near a fulfillment center. The goal: customers receiving a package of up to five pounds within 30 minutes, via a drone equipped with GPS and sense-and-avoid technology. Amazon has also filed patents for warehouses in the sky.
In April, the FAA approved Google’s drone company, Wing, which should begin delivering small products to consumers in Virginia this year. Zipline International has used drones to deliver medical supplies within a 50-mile range in Rwanda, and is now testing in the U.S. Its drones use parachutes to gently drop packages to their destinations. DHL and UPS have run trials of drone delivery. And, last summer, the U.S. Navy spent $794 million on a contract for 23 companies to build unmanned undersea vehicles–swarms of submarining drones–that can deliver consumer and military goods.
Though driverless delivery cars are still far off, they’re coming too. In 2017 and 2018, Domino’s and Ford delivered pizzas using autonomous cars in Las Vegas, Miami, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Humans rode shotgun, for safety.) Others pursuing that technology include Ace Hardware, Toyota, and Pizza Hut.
Such developments mean deliveries will be cheaper and likely subject to fewer mistakes. Your customers, who will track their packages in real-time, will no longer worry about tipping. The autonomous last-mile world will be good for everyone, then–with the possible exception of broody long-haired teenagers in rock bands.