Public trust in automated vehicle technology is the key to the future of e-commerce, experts say. Especially as stay-at-home orders continue and the pandemic limits in-person shopping capabilities, people who rely more heavily than ever on contactless delivery should begin learning what AV tech has to offer.
Head of policy at Nuro–a robotics company that focuses on autonomous vehicle deployment for last-mile deliveries–Matthew Lipka, explained that this public trust is extremely important, and AV systems could in fact be regularly delivering someone’s pizza sooner than we think.
“I think that’s really, really critical,” said Lipka of public confidence around AV tech. “We need to get out there and talk to people and introduce them to the technology. I think delivery technology is a way of building that public trust.”
Alia Verloes of infrastructure and transportation-focused consulting group Steer said community engagement and outreach will help to address any common concerns and also help progress a conversation about how this tech can help in the midst of the pandemic.
“Let’s involve communities at the local level [and] county level to better understand the specific concerns,” said Verloes. “Outreach means many things, but here, it’s about listening.”
The coronavirus pandemic has also brought about a “greater appetite” for delivery services, Verloes noted. She also explained that e-commerce as an industry has seen huge growth in areas like grocery shopping, but it is hard to tell if this pattern is here to stay.
We recently reported on the revealing of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Freight Strategic Plan, which aims to boost infrastructure planning and freight movement efficiency. The plan will work toward improving overall freight system safety, as well as the modernization of infrastructure and the development and implementation of innovative technology.
Building a strong infrastructure network involves strong economic competitiveness, according to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and investment in safer and modernized infrastructure and technology could very well include boosted efforts to support autonomous delivery vehicles.
According to the National Freight Strategic Plan, e-commerce shopping habits were already growing extremely quickly even before the pandemic began. Between the fourth quarters of 2018 and 2019, e-commerce sales grew 16.7%, as shown in U.S. Census Bureau data, and has skyrocketed since. The 118-page plan also identified that e-commerce has become a major issue for current freight movement efficiency, as the industry has contributed greatly to the increase of overall truck traffic and curb space competition.
“The rise of e-commerce has disrupted our supply chains and increased demand for last-mile deliveries in areas that are already heavily congested,” said Chao at the announcement of the plan. “This National Freight Strategic Plan will help us invest strategically in our country’s future and turn these challenges into opportunities.”
Verloes explained that AV technology could not only save customers time, but it could also save lives. Shifting toward more regular AV utilization could help commuters avoid 244,000 injury-causing road crashes between 2025 and 2035. Additionally, if AV deployment is implemented during this time period, around 21 billion hours of driving for errand-related purposes would be saved for road travelers.
Because these particular automated vehicles would not accommodate people, they would not need the same hyper-focus on design as autonomous passenger vehicles have, including designs regarding driver and passenger comfort and safety.
“With no driver or passengers to worry about, our vehicle has been engineered from the ground up to keep what’s outside even safer than what’s inside,” said Nuro on its website.
Nuro’s R2 vehicle is designed strictly to transport goods and has been designated to a pilot grocery delivery program in Scottsdale, Arizona. According to Lipka, because the vehicle won’t hold any occupants, it is able to stop and move abruptly without any safety concerns.
Ground-based AV systems also have the ability to transport and carry a variety of items, whereas other mobile technology, like drones, does not. Drones, Lipka said, can deliver anti-venom for snakebites in an emergency, but can’t drive two gallons of milk to a shopper’s curbside.
Lipka also explained that transitioning to automated delivery vehicles in lieu of traditional fleets will need to be a careful and deliberate move, as this technology must operate at “automotive-grade reliability.”
“[They’re] not like scooters, where you’re just going to wake up one morning, and there’s 1,000 delivery robots on your street,” he said.