Startup inks ‘world’s largest deal’ for driverless grocery deliveries

Whether or not your grocery delivery arrives in a van with a driver behind the wheel may not matter much to you, but an increasing number of companies are nevertheless investing heavily in autonomous delivery vehicles in the belief that they’ll improve efficiency and create significant cost benefits in the long term. Yes, you’ll have to wait and see if those savings will be passed on to you, the customer.

Udelv, a San Francisco-based startup that has already used its autonomous vans to make more than 700 driverless deliveries in the San Francisco Bay area, recently inked what it claims is the world’s largest deal for a grocery delivery service using self-driving vehicles.

The service is set to begin in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma next year, and will use 10 autonomous vans to transport orders to customers from local supermarkets that include Buy For Less, Uptown Grocery, and Smart Saver.

Similar to other trials for self-driving delivery services, the electric vans will operate with safety drivers until both Udelv, and regulators deem them fit for fully driverless operation.

“The vehicles will eventually cover thousands of miles of residential roads in what will be one of the largest autonomous driving deployments in the world,” Udelv said in a release.

Udelv’s van, which has a top speed of 25 mph and a range of around 60 miles, is capable of Level 4 autonomy, meaning it can operate in most scenarios with little to no human intervention.

The vehicle contains 18 compartments for storing customer orders. When the van arrives at a delivery address, the customer receives a notification on their smartphone. They can then meet the van and access their order by tapping in a code to unlock the compartment that contains their items.

News of Udelv’s deal comes soon after another California-based startup, Nuro, launched a driverless delivery service — albeit on a very small scale — in Arizona in partnership with supermarket chain Kroger. Like Udelv, Nuro also has a purpose-built autonomous vehicle, but for its trial service it’s using self-driving Prius cars until final testing and certification of its own vehicle is complete.

But it’s not clear how such services will benefit those who may find it difficult to move their shopping from the van to their home, such as senior citizens or those with particular disabilities. Until these companies add a box-carrying robot to their vans, some delivery runs will have to continue operating with a human to carry the order into homes.

Autonomous vehicle technology is developing fast, though it’s likely to be some time before you have a chance of purchasing your very own fully driverless car. Instead, the industry is looking to exploit platforms that indicate a more measured rollout of the technology. These include self-driving taxi and shuttle services, as well as delivery services using driverless vehicles.

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