Operations

Ecommerce is a key part of growing driverless vehicle deployments

New agreements from Uber and Loblaw set the stage to bring AVs to the last and middle-mile.

Ecommerce is a key part of growing driverless vehicle deployments

A pair of moves to deploy driverless vehicles are being called landmarks for the efforts to introduce autonomous logistics into ecommerce.

The partnerships span both the last mile and middle mile. Take a look:

​Gatik goes driverless with Loblaw in Canada

A Gatik truck A Gatik truck. (Photo by The Current)

In Canada, the grocer Loblaw is expanding a relationship with Gatik, an autonomous middle mile logistics company.

This week, Gatik said it is launching fully-driverless vehicle operations for Loblaw. Gatik box trucks are transporting “select” grocery orders for Loblaw’s PC Express service, which provides delivery of grocery and convenience items.

It marks the first time Gatik removed the driver on a daily delivery route in Canada. The companies said autonomous vehicles enable Loblaw to operate more routes, make more frequent trips, and create a more sustainable and resilient supply chain.

The companies started deploying autonomous vehicles in January 2020. They have since transported 150,000 autonomous deliveries with a safety driver onboard. The safety record in that time has been 100%, the companies said.

To verify safety, Loblaw commissioned a three-month study by a third-party firm. Then, Gatik’s fleet transported goods seven days a week from a Loblaw distribution facility to five retail locations in Greater Toronto on fixed, repetitive and predictable routes.

“This milestone marks the expansion of Gatik’s autonomous delivery service to Loblaw’s customers across multiple sites,” said Gautam Narang, CEO and cofounder of Gatik, in a statement. “Canada is the latest market in which we’ve launched our fully driverless service, further validating that the tangible benefits of autonomous delivery are being realized first in B2B short-haul logistics. It’s a privilege to achieve this commercial and technical landmark with Canada’s largest retailer.”

Gatik’s box trucks are designed for the middle mile, which transports goods between retail facilities and storage. Last month, the company signed an agreement with Pitney Bowes to pilot autonomous logistics for ecommerce operations in the Dallas area, starting in early 2023. The growth shows the advantages of autonomy can be realized not only in delivery, but also in moving goods upstream.

It comes on the same week that Loblaw is expanding last-mile delivery options as well. Alongside PC Express, Loblaw is making delivery from DoorDash available at nearly 1,100 stores under its umbrella. While ordering will be available through DoorDash Marketplace, DoorDash will also power delivery of PC Express goods through its white-label service.

"Online grocery has changed. It is not a one-size fits all solution. Customers are looking for varying levels of convenience – orders within minutes, shopping from favourite apps, and a seamless experience," said Galen G. Weston, president of Loblaw companies.

Grocers, meanwhile, are looking for logistics to fit each stage of the journey. Loblaw is putting the pieces into place to get there.

​Uber and Motional expand

A Motional vehicle. (Courtesy photo)

Earlier this year, we reported on Uber and Motional’s pilot of autonomous deliveries for Uber Eats customers in California. The Santa Monica deliveries were the first time Hyundai and Aptiv-owned Motional outfitted its vehicles for commercial delivery.

Now, delivery is part of a wider agreement between the companies that is being called the first to include autonmous transportation of both people and products.

Uber and Motional signed a 10-year, multimarket agreement that will allow Motional’s electric robotaxis to be deployed for Uber rides. The companies plan to “strategically” deploy the cars in cities around the US, with the first rides expected to start later this year.

"This agreement will be instrumental to the wide scale adoption of robotaxis," said Karl Iagnemma, President and CEO of Motional, in a statement. "Motional now has unparalleled access to millions of riders and a roadmap to scale significantly over the next ten years. We're proud to partner with Uber to bring both driverless ride-hail and deliveries to life in cities throughout the US."

Alongside ride hailing, the agreement includes provisions for an expansion of AVs in the Uber Eats delivery service. The pilot in California was “well received” by customers, the company said, and has been expanded to service more restaurants.

These agreements are significant, but they don’t mean that autonomous vehicles are here. Nevertheless, the agreements show that companies may believe it will be a matter of when, not if the technology is ready. Ecommerce will be a key area where the vehicles are deployed.

Amazon scales back Scout

Along with progress, there's a step back to report in autonomous delivery this week. Amazon said it is ending testing for its autonomous home delivery robot, named Scout. Bloomberg reported that the team behind the project is being dismantled amid cust-cutting that is leading to a pullback on experimental projects at the company.

A spokesperson told Bloomberg that Amazon conducted limited field tests of the robots in several suburban areas to create a new delivery experience, but got feedback that parts of the program did not meet customers' needs.

Scout is roughly the size of a cooler, and is designed to stop at a person's front door and pop open, allowing a person to take a package out.

This news is not so much about Scout itself, as it seemed like the product still had lots of work in front of it. Rather, it means that Amazon won't be testing an autonomous robot for delivery, meaning that a company with lots of knowhow in this area and a history of inventing won't be among those working on the challenge. Robots hold out the potential to reduce emissions and help to streamline operations in last-mile delivery, so it is worth considering how they fit into future logistics plans. Plus, Motional will need something to bring a package to a person's door when its car arrives.

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