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Self-driving on roads? A piece of cake…

Scout, the Amazon robot, is busy delivering packages. And that is so much more difficult than being a self driving car! Image credit: Amazon

Waymo and others are working on delivering self driving cars and they are getting really close to making them everyday reality, passing the trial phase. Having self driving cars proved a very complex endeavour, balancing safety with acceptable speed under economic constraints but now we are getting there (the economics is not fully in place, real mass market affordability would probably require ten more years and regulation hurdles probably a bit more).

A different story is self driving vehicles that can be used to deliver goods in urban environment. At first glance it might seem easier to create this type of robots, since they would have to move at much lower speed, hence lower safety concerns. In practice, this is proving quite challenging because the sidewalk environment is way less structured than roads and there are more potential hurdles to pay attention to (kids running out of a garden, dogs strolling around, steps that need to be overcome…).

Amazon, leveraging on their experience with robots moving boxes in their warehouses, is now running some trials, with a new one announced to begin in Snohomish County, Washington state.

They have developed Scout in their research lab and six of them will start roaming Snohomish County urban area to deliver packages to some of their prime customers, Monday to Friday. For now delivery will take place during daylight hours only and in the first phase of the trial Scout will be chaperoned by an Amazon attendant making sure everything goes smoothly and taking note of issues that may be arise (see clip).

So far it is clearly way more expensive than delivering packages using Fedex or other delivery services but the goal is to make autonomous delivery, at least in certain areas, more efficient by using robots, both on wheels, as Scout, or using propellers (drones).

We can expect to see the shift from trials to real commercial services later in the next decade (yes, service may start earlier, but a real transformation of delivery will take much more time).

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.