Autonomous cars promise to change the way we drive (or rather don't drive), but northern California startup Udelv hopes to be one of the first to use self-driving tech to revolutionize cargo transportation. The startup has just demonstrated the first public road test of its self-driving delivery truck in San Mateo, California.
The bright orange truck unveiled at today's event is what's known as a "last-mile" delivery vehicle and is designed for short local deliveries. In this case, it's delivering food to nearby customers from a local grocery chain in San Mateo.
Mechanically, the truck is based on the GEM eL XD electric truck chassis with an 8.7 horsepower e-motor and a top speed of just 25 miles per hour. That pretty much limits it to low-speed, local deliveries. Its 20-kWh battery pack is good for a range of 60 miles per charge; good, according to Udelv, for about 40 stops. The numbers aren't impressive, but these modest specs should be fine for last-mile shipments and help to keep operating costs down to an estimated 5 cents per mile.
Out back, Udelv has partnered with Motivo Engineering to build a completely custom cargo space able to hold a payload of 700 pounds split between 18 individual compartments in four different sizes. Customers interact with these compartments with an iOS app. After a few taps on a smartphone, the truck recognizes the customer and opens only the appropriate compartments for cargo retrieval.
The big news here is the claimed level-four autonomous driving features. With an array of lidar and camera sensors atop its roof, the Udelv truck is able to sense its environment and autonomously drive from stop to stop making deliveries. A human "safety driver" is required during the current testing phase per state law, but Udelv hopes to use low-latency remote control to allow human operators to aid in tricky situations like construction zones. Ultimately, the startup hopes a future-generation truck will be able to do away with the cabin, making room for even more cargo.
We were able to watch the truck make its first test deliveries on public roads at this morning's events. On a live feed broadcast to us from a following vehicle, we watched the truck navigate traffic on its way to two stops where Udelv employees were waiting to grab bags of groceries. Aside from a few hiccups that caused a delay of about a minute when accessing the cargo area, the demonstration went off without a hitch.
Udelv is kicking off a pilot program with a partnership with local grocery chain Draeger's Market and last-mile shipping provider Delivery Guys with deliveries beginning in San Mateo in February. Between the low operating costs of its electric power train and the money saved by not requiring a driver, Udelv thinks it can reduce shipping costs by as much as 50 percent with its self-driving trucks, which should benefit businesses and end consumers.
Beyond the grocery-getter pilot program, Udelv hopes to offer a wider range of last-mile shipping services and even peer-to-peer delivery, couriering items between customers for a fee. It's also looking to court other shipping companies, providing autonomous last-mile delivery vehicles and software to the likes of UPS, FedEx or maybe even Amazon. To that end, it's offering preorders to interested companies starting today.