I stand on a curb in Greenwich, admiring some reasonably attractive new-build homes. Everything is a bit too clean, a little like Disneyland. Young professionals mill around. In the distance, I can hear the hum of the Thames Clipper river bus service that goes up and down the river. And then, out of frickin’ nowhere, a van stealthily crawls around a nearby corner. The vehicle is electric and completely silent, and it’s heading straight towards me. A bit like the Speedepisode of Father Ted.
As the van gets closer I can see there’s someone in the front seat: a guy in a high-vis jacket. A couple of seconds later, I can see there’s a giant nerdy grin on his face and his hands aren’t on the steering wheel. The van slowly trundles forward and eventually stops in front of me. The man hops out of the cab, clearly enjoying the baffled look on my face.
“You ordered some groceries?”
“Okay, just push the button here, and the door will open.”
I push a button on the side of the van, one of eight doors pops open, and I lift out a box of groceries. In the box there’s the muesli, dried mango pieces, and a few other bits that I ordered via the Ocado website a few days ago. Then the milk float gangster squeezes himself back into the vehicle, taps the screen of an iPad attached to the dashboard, and rolls towards the next autonomous grocery delivery.
Ocado and Oxbotica
I had just experienced the UK’s (and possibly the world’s) first grocery delivery via autonomous van. The van, called the CargoPod, was developed by Oxbotica—an autonomous systems startup spun off from Oxford University with some useful patents. The trial was part of GATEway (the Greenwich Automated Transport Environment) project. Earlier in 2017, Starship Technologies also chose the borough of Greenwich for a trial of its small autonomous delivery robots.
The big-hitter, though, is Ocado, the world’s largest online-only supermarket, which is using the GATEway trials to keep its finger in as many autonomous pies as possible. Ocado, like many big companies, knows that autonomous systems will disrupt its business—but the tech is moving so quickly that it’s almost impossible to know exactly how or when that disruption will occur, which is pretty scary if your business is based on producing or moving stuff around efficiently.
Ocado has already invested heavily in autonomous tech for its warehouses to increase efficiency and throughput. Electric autonomous last-mile delivery vehicles could be the next logical step, to replace or augment its thousands of diesel-powered delivery vans.
The delivery van itself, the CargoPod, was very rapidly constructed from an off-the-shelf electric vehicle drivetrain and wheelbase. Oxbotica equipped the CargoPod with two lidar sensors above the wing mirrors, three cameras above the front bumper, three cameras at the back, and inside the dashboard there’s a fairly standard Intel Core i7 computer that integrates the sensor data and performs all of the self-driving stuff. The computer runs Ubuntu, and on top of that is Oxbotica’s Selenium autonomous driving software.
I wasn’t allowed to poke around too much, but Selenium appeared to be controlled by an iPad wired directly into the PC via USB. I think the iPad was functioning as the primary monitor for the computer, rather than running some kind of app. Whenever the van stopped to make a delivery, Selenium switched into manual mode, and wouldn’t return to autonomous mode until the delivery guy tapped a button on the screen.
Because the autonomous driving software isn’t perfect, the CargoPod has a steering wheel, pedals, and a big red emergency stop button. The guy in a high-vis jacket is actually a safety driver: it’s his job to grab the wheel or slam on the brakes if something goes wrong. He said there had been a couple of incidents where he had to intervene, mostly when obstacles moved in quickly from the side—for example, a pedestrian walking along the pavement parallel to the van who then decides to cross the street.
During this GATEway trial, the CargoPod collects groceries from a temporary Ocado warehouse, and then follows a number of set routes around the new Royal Arsenal Riverside development in Woolwich. The autonomous van has a manifest that contains a list of the orders it’s carrying, and each order has an associated set of GPS coordinates. When the CargoPod route passes one of those locations, it stops.
I was allowed to sit in the CargoPod, but sadly couldn’t touch the iPad or sit in the van while it was actually moving.
Automation: One size doesn’t fit all
Autonomous last-mile deliveries will obviously be awesome for a large swathe of society. You’ll be able to order and receive items very quickly and cheaply; instead of next-hour delivery services like Amazon Prime Now being the expensive, luxury exception, they’ll be the norm. Restaurants and shops might retain the services of a few autonomous delivery bots that service the local area, rather than using third-party services like Deliveroo.
But for lots of people, autonomous deliveries may be more of a hindrance. What if you live on the second or third floor of a building and need some help carrying the groceries up the stairs? What if you sprain your arm between ordering online and the groceries being delivered? What if your eggs are broken or there’s a missing item?
None of these problems are insoluble—let’s have another robot that carries the bags to your kitchen!—but I can imagine it’ll be awfully tempting for big companies to roll out autonomous tech willy-nilly before it has been fully solved.
Now read our in-depth feature on how robotics and automation will change the world…