Apr 11, 2022, 08:30am EDT | Source: forbes.com
By Manju Hegde, CEO and Cofounder of Uhnder, Inc.
As a result of pandemic-related behavioral shifts, the newfound affinity for contactless delivery has had an especially salient impact on one technology sector. Delivery companies have started contactless delivery for consumers using low-speed automated delivery vehicles (ADVs), or what are commonly referred to as delivery robots. In addition, consumers are opting to make more online purchases, most notably for items that were previously almost exclusively acquired at a local market, such as groceries and household essentials, thereby increasing the demand for ADVs.
2021 was a watershed year for advancements in ADVs. ADVs are already navigating their way around city streets and sidewalks across the world, and a recent Guidehouse Insights report suggests that the number of automated deliveries could compound at a staggering annual growth rate of 170%. To put that figure into perspective, there were roughly 7 million ADV deliveries in 2021, and Guidehouse estimates that number will reach 51 billion by 2030.
But what exactly are ADVs, and how will their widespread adoption impact our lives as well as the future of autonomous vehicle technology?
Usually no more than a few feet both tall and wide, low-speed ADVs are electronically powered, compact autonomous vehicles that currently travel at a modest speed of around 5 mph. While there are various design models, ADVs typically have at least four wheels and use a combination of GPS, radar, lidar and cameras to safely navigate their surroundings. Due to their small size and restricted battery life, ADVs currently only carry items around tens of pounds and mostly remain confined to a relatively limited radius.
While most ADVs on the market and in operation today require a human to remotely monitor routes and intervene whenever necessary, the technology is constantly being refined to become less reliant on manual intervention.
Is ADV Technology Safe?
To be viewed as truly safe, ADVs will eventually need to meet a number of technical requirements to sufficiently ensure the safe navigation of complex environments. Of course, one of the main requirements will be to eliminate the dependence on human operation and oversight through increasingly driverless ADVs; however, this condition cannot be met without first making improvements to the underlying sensing technology that makes fully autonomous vehicles possible to begin with.
Many, if not all, technical barriers to be overcome are related to an ADV’s ability to sense its surroundings. Fully autonomous ADVs must be equipped with sensors that not only have very large fields of view both horizontally and vertically but also process the surrounding environment at a higher resolution than current models in order to more accurately identify and respond to the objects they encounter. This also includes the ability to detect objects based on immediate proximity—and ideally from as close to a target as possible. Moreover, ADVs must be trained to determine between what is and isn’t a drivable surface, identifying obstructions as subtle as a crack in the sidewalk or a fallen tree branch, all while considering the rapid and unpredictable movements of pedestrians, pets and other vehicles in crowded urban thoroughfares.
Advancements are continuously being made that will enhance the safety of ADVs. Radar sensors, for example, which have been integral to the development of driverless vehicle technologies, are poised for a sharp departure from analog to digital-based systems, a significant upgrade in both accuracy and overall functionality. With its vastly superior ability to perform in harsh weather conditions and protect against interference from opposing radar signals, digital radar could ultimately be the key to optimizing the safety features of all autonomous vehicles, regardless of their application. Additionally, if the aforementioned technical requirements can be satisfied by advancements in digital radar technology, it would eliminate the need for manufacturers to equip their ADVs with increasingly redundant sensors such as lidar, ultimately resulting in ADVs that are less expensive, less complex and more reliable, and that have extended operating range.
What To Expect In The Future
As the global courier, express and parcel (CEP) market continues to grow faster than ever before, expected to reach a valuation of over $500 billion in 2024, it appears to be less a matter of ifthan a matter of whendelivery robots will arrive in neighborhoods across the globe. Companies to watch in this market are Amazon with its Project Scout robot, FedEx with its Roxo robot, and Starship Technologies, which is making more than 10,000 contactless deliveries per day in the U.S. and Europe. In China, Alibaba, the e-commerce giant, is expected to expand their existing fleet of 200 ADVs to 10,000 in as little as three years’ time.
When it comes to the technology itself, rapid advancements in machine learning and digital radar sensor technologies indicate that ADV capabilities will only continue to improve, and existing safety concerns will likely be mitigated considerably over time. All in all, consumers can safely rejoice in the fact that not only is next- and same-day contactless delivery here to stay, but the impending ADV revolution also has the potential to render these services cheaper and more efficient than ever before.