FedEx delivery truck

FedEx begins tests of autonomous delivery vehicles

On June 15, 2021, FedEx Corp. announced their multi-year, multi-phase partnership with Nuro, a five-year-old robotics startup in California, to test the efficacy of autonomous delivery vehicles. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, parcel carriers, grocery stores, and pizza retailers are now looking into and investing in different opportunities to provide seamless delivery of their products to their customers.

Tests started back in April in the Houston, Texas, area. The pilot program aims to test different use cases for these autonomous vehicles, such as appointment-based deliveries and multi-stop delivery routes. FedEx believes autonomous delivery can improve safety, productivity, and efficiency for the company.

Autonomous delivery vehicles: no longer a pipe dream

The tests were conducted using Nuro’s Mountain View, their “R2” autonomous vehicle (AV). It’s capable of navigating rough terrain, climbing curbs, and operating autonomously on public roads, just like other passenger vehicles. The main difference is that there’s no driver, and packages, groceries, and pizzas stay secure in their custom-built cargo bays.

It’s no secret that the pandemic has caused supply chain disruptions. Maintaining and stabilizing supply chains is a must to keep up with the growing e-commerce market. More and more shoppers are transitioning online, which means retailers and parcel carriers must consider the changing delivery expectations.

Customers expect their orders to be shipped promptly and to receive them in a timely manner, which adds pressure to logistics providers and will force more of them to look into autonomous solutions.

It’s evident that this new technology will only continue to develop and improve, making autonomous delivery possible for all kinds of businesses. The partnership with Nuro only adds to FedEx’s autonomous delivery portfolio.

While Nuro tested their AV delivery systems in the food, retail, and pharmaceutical industries, this is their first venture in the parcel carrying vertical. The program is paving the way for more startups and tech companies, as well as parcel providers like UPS, to invest in artificial intelligence (AI)-based solutions.

How do these autonomous vehicles work?

You may be wondering how these technologies work. Nuro’s R2 is decked out with a 360º camera, Lidar, and long-range radar. R2 also has ultrasonic sensors to assist with mapping out regions and choosing the most optimized route.

R2 cannot fall victim to blind spots and can recognize children and small pets as well. Nuro prioritizes safety and boasts that its technology can help protect pedestrians from fatal accidents. It’s clear that the technology is advanced, and Nuro designs their products with suitable safety measures in mind.

Before the Nuro partnership, FedEx had already been working on their own autonomous delivery vehicle, Roxo, the FedEx SameDay Bot, which is similar to Nuro’s R2. However, Roxo can operate on sidewalks and bike lanes, whereas R2 sticks to driving on public roads.

Roxo can also climb curbs and deep terrace steps using redundant sensors to navigate various obstacles to deliver packages safely. One difference between the two AVs is that Roxo is operated by a team of remote workers who can see different views using Roxo’s cameras. Operators can communicate with pedestrians and first responders in the case of an emergency.

Concerns and limitations of autonomous delivery vehicles

There are various concerns and limitations associated with the use of autonomous delivery vehicles. For example, many believe that the rise of AVs will put existing truck drivers and parcel couriers out of work. Generally speaking, any kind of automation increases this risk. Still, companies working in this industry push the idea that new technologies are meant to complement current operations.

Some organizations, like the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO (TTD), went to Congress to explain their concerns in hopes of protecting driver jobs across the country. They believe in regulating autonomous delivery vehicles due to safety concerns and because automation will either alter or remove jobs.

Another limitation that’s worth mentioning is the idea that customers may not be home to go outside and receive their packages from these autonomous delivery vehicles. Because of this, it’s likely that drivers will still serve an essential function in delivery to account for these types of circumstances.

One instance where automation would not work is when customers live in apartment buildings. Robots wouldn’t be able to type in a code on a keypad or be able to ride up an elevator. Regardless of this rapid technological development, human drivers will still play an essential role in successfully delivering parcels under certain conditions.

The future of autonomous delivery

Despite various limitations, tech startups involved with autonomous vehicles have a bright future ahead of them. These partnerships and pilot projects will likely pave the way for more innovation. The ultimate goal is to prioritize safety while also delivering items efficiently. Hopefully, the FedEx and Nuro partnership will convince other industry leaders to consider implementing new technologies into their operations to serve their customers better.

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