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DoorDash and Postmates Roll Out Autonomous Test Deliveries in the US

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【Summary】Instead of a human driver, the six-wheeled units navigate busy sidewalks (note: not open roads) autonomously via robust algorithms and city maps. The technology has attracted a handful of powerful auto brands, including Mercedes-Benz Vans.

Original Michael Cheng    Jan 23, 2017 6:17 AM PT
DoorDash and Postmates Roll Out Autonomous Test Deliveries in the US

Autonomous driving technology has numerous business applications. This can be seen in Uber's plans to launch driverless flying taxis, EagleEye System's autonomous drones and Nissan's ProPILOT-powered, self-adjusting system made up of chairs. Another company that has been quietly developing a fleet of autonomous vessels for commercial markets is Starship Technologies.

The London-based startup specializes in "last-mile" delivery bots. Instead of a human driver, the six-wheeled units navigate busy sidewalks (note: not open roads) autonomously via robust algorithms and city maps. The technology has attracted a handful of powerful auto brands, including Mercedes-Benz Vans (through Daimler). The European car manufacturer led a successful $17.2 million seed funding round earlier this month to further develop the startup's autonomous delivery network. Shasta Ventures, Matrix Partners, ZX Ventures and Morpheus Ventures also participated in the round.

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DoorDash and Postmates

With its growing fleet of autonomous pods, Starship is aiming to automate local delivery services, from pizza and other food deliveries to documents and gifts. The startup is offering its platform and vessels to businesses looking to reduce logistical issues related to human deliveries. In the US, the latest companies to adopt Starship's bots are DoorDash, a food delivery startup based in Redwood City, California and Postmates, an online marketplace based in Washington DC.

During operation, the pods travel at painstakingly slow top speeds (four miles per hour). Additionally, they can only carry 40 lbs. Under the hood, the autonomous bots are powered by lithium-ion batteries, making them a lot more eco-friendly than fuel-powered trucks.

DoorDash clarified it will not replace all of its human workers with bots. The autonomous fleet will be deployed to cater to nearby, low-cost transactions (for example, a $6.00 burrito) around the city – or purchases human couriers aren't interested in covering due to small tips. To complete a delivery, customers will be required to tap a link in a smartphone app that unlocks the bin of the pod when it arrives at the location. Most of the destinations are within a two-mile radius.

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Reducing Delivery Risks

Postmates did not reveal how it will leverage Startship's autonomous units. The company explained it will be monitoring data surrounding deliveries made around the area to gauge the effectiveness of the system. It's very clear for now that these pods won't be replacing workers for long distance delivery transactions. From a regulatory perspective, Starthip's fleet does not have as many legislative barriers to overcome, compared to drone-based deliveries that are being tested by Amazon and 7-Eleven. This could be the main reason the startup has been so successful in marketing and expanding its services to tech-savvy businesses.

"The robot can only travel short distances under its own power and until now has had to return to the warehouse to be reloaded after each delivery. On the one hand, the introduction of the van as a mobile hub widens the operational radius of the robots significantly, while also rendering superfluous the cost-intensive construction and operation of decentralized warehouses," said Volker Mornhinweg, Head of Mercedes-Benz Vans.

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