In a glimpse of things to come, a number of tech start-ups are test-piloting the idea of using self-driving vehicles to deliver groceries or prepared foods to your home.
"Udelv currently has two autonomous delivery vans delivering for clients in the California Bay Area," says Adriel Lubarsky, the company's director of business development. "Over the next few years, we aim to produce dozens."
Meanwhile, robotics developer Nuro has partnered with supermarket chain Kroger to test delivery of groceries via self-driven vehicles in Scotsdale, AZ. Autonomous vehicle startup AutoX has launched a similar produce delivery pilot test in San Jose, CA.
"Delivery is very attractive in some aspects because it does away with one of the most challenging problems in terms of safety; you no longer have to worry about the safety of people onboard because there are no passengers," says Michael Milford, a professor at Australia's Queensland University of Technology who specializes in robotics, neuroscience, and computer vision.
Automated delivery "simplifies many of the life and death situations," Milford says, because "you always choose to prioritize the people outside the vehicle: pedestrians, cyclists, other cars."
Under the hood, many self-driving food delivery pilots are using LIDAR (a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure variable distances to the Earth) along with cameras, proprietary software, and sometimes radar, to navigate through city streets safely. Udelv uses LIDAR and cameras, for example, while Nuro uses a combination of LIDAR, radar, and cameras.
AutoX has gone in a different direction, forsaking relatively expensive LIDAR for a system that uses high-resolution cameras driven by proprietary software, according to Jianxiong Xiao, the company's CEO.
Not surprisingly, all the delivery services have taken great pains to ensure these early iterations of self-driving delivery vehicles pose no threat to the public. Nuro, Udelv and AutoX, for example, all have a human driver onboard during deliveries to ensure someone can grab the controls if something goes awry.
"We're using highly trained safety operators in every vehicle, for every delivery," Udelv's Lubarsky says, adding that the human operator plays no other part in the delivery service, standard operating procedure for pilot tests underway with Nuro, AutoX, and others.
Plus, many of the services incorporate a second safety failsafe: the ability to seize control of the vehicle from a remote monitoring facility.
"When deployed, our custom vehicle will have a remote operator monitoring at all times, capable of taking over in the event of a potential unmanaged risk," says Dave Ferguson, co-founder of Nuro.
Customers participating in the pilot trials generally use a smartphone app to place an order. When the delivery arrives, customers retrieve the prepared food or groceries by unlocking an compartment onboard the delivery vehicle. Udelv customers use the company's smartphone app to unlock their food, while Nuro customers are messaged a unique PIN to retrieve their order.
Interestingly, start-ups like Udelv and Nuro are not overly concerned about theft, given that their compartments are locked securely and the self-driving vehicles they are using are loaded down with video cameras shooting live footage from virtually every angle.
The "vehicle is carefully monitored at all times, both by the robot's internal systems and external fleet managers," says Nuro's Ferguson.
Adds Udelv's Lubarsky, "The cargo space is pressurized, so people aren't able to open compartments with force. In addition to this, our vehicles are surrounded with top-of-the -line camera technology, so it would be quite unwise to try to break in."
Generally, these self-driving delivery start-ups don't charge individual customers for deliveries. Instead, Udelv, Nuro, and others leave billing for delivery to the restaurant or grocery store, where customers pay at checkout using traditional payment options like credit cards and Paypal.
Some following the space closely suggest the market for self-driving food delivery vehicles could mature much faster than the market for self-driving cars designed to transport people.
One major reason, as noted by Queensland's Milford, is that safety concerns are not nearly as severe. Explains Srikanth Saripalli, co-director of the Center for Autonomous Vehicles and Sensor Systems at Texas A&M University, "Without humans in the vehicle, one can remove a lot of safety features built-in.
"Also, these vehicles can be built such that they can move much more slowly, take the easier routes across the city, and use infrastructure in ways that we have not thought about for delivery systems."
Such delivery services could come to be seen as convenient and cost-effective, particularly for produce. "Fruits and vegetables are often difficult to keep fresh without frequent trips to the store," says Teddy Ort, a Ph.D. candidate working on self-driving technology in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. "Low-cost autonomous delivery systems will not only provide convenience, but also allow people to have a steady supply of fresher, healthier foods, with less waste."
As for when self-driving food delivery vehicles will become commonplace in major population centers, the jury is still out.
"We'll have widespread trials shortly," says Queensland's Milford. "Then we'll have some initial answers around reliability, appetite from customers to have their groceries delivered, and the range of environments in which this tech will initially be safely deployable."
Texas A&M's Saripalli estimates the tech will need three to five years to establish a significant foothold, "because of all the competition from drone delivery and other forms of services."
Johanna Zmud, a senior research scientist at Texas A&M's Transportation Institute, sees the roll-out taking as long as another two decades. "There are still many issues to be solved before we see such services firmly established."
Joe Dysart is an Internet speaker and business consultant based in Manhattan, NY, USA