This Autonomous Van Could Soon Be Delivering Your Shopping

By James O Malley on at

Back in February, we took a tour around the futuristic warehouse operated by Ocado - a company that styles itself as a technology company that just happens to sell groceries. It was hugely impressive, as the shuffling of your shopping is almost entirely automated by using a huge network of conveyor belts - and the process is being constantly optimised to squeeze out as much efficiency as possible.

The whole process is essentially designed to eliminate the need for as many pesky humans as possible - because they need things like “wages” and “sleep”.

And this is clearly what’s driving Ocado’s interest in autonomous vehicles too.

Last week, Giz UK was invited down to Greenwich to learn more about the company’s team-up with autonomous driving specialists Oxbotica, which is the firm behind seemingly almost every autonomous scheme that makes the news. Together, the companies are hoping to use autonomous vans powered by Oxbotica software to deliver crates of shopping for “last mile” deliveries - the particularly expensive part of the delivery process where the stuff you ordered actually get to your house.

The vehicle on show was fully electric and could travel up to 25mph - though it was limited to just 5mph for testing. It has a range of around 30 miles - and takes three hours to charge up. Okay so a Tesla it ain’t, but when the main job is these short “last mile” trips prioritising storage and (presumably) cost makes a lot of sense. Like Starship Technologies, if there are going to be thousands of these on the roads, they need to cheap and replaceable, so they can be easily swapped out when they need servicing.

And of course, the reason there’s a guy wearing a hi-vis sat in the front is because that’s currently a legal requirement when testing vehicles like this.

The trial we were seeing was apparently real, in that real, actual, Ocado customers were receiving small shopping deliveries using the vans. But it was also perhaps not an entirely realistic trial: It was restricted to the posh flats in the Woolwich Arsenal area, which is technically open to traffic but in reality is more a pedestrianised street. So I must admit I’m a little sceptical as to how far away from autonomous deliveries we really are. Perhaps this is why the company will soon be trialling the vehicles on the roads of Oxford too - which, with the same level of autonomy being used, will confront different challenges, such as lane-keeping and moving in traffic.

Clever Software

Interestingly, the software running on these vehicles is actually the same as which runs on other Oxbotica projects, like the passenger shuttles that were publicly tested in April. “All we need is a few onboard computers and then [we need] to rig up the sensors, and it’s always the same sensor array: So two or three LIDAR, one or two stereo cameras”, Oxbotica CEO Graeme Smith explained to me.

As with other self-driving vehicles. the cameras are used for localisation - figuring out exactly where the vehicle is, and the LIDAR is used for obstacle detection. This data being fed back into the vehicle also improves its perceptions: “It can start to identify what’s a person, what’s a car, what’s a bicycle, what’s a dog or cat, and then from that predict how those different things travel, and make decisions about that”, Graeme explains.

As the vehicle travels around, the cameras constantly captures new data so they can learn the environments better. Eventually, this data will be shared with Oxbotica’s Caesium platform - which will be a central, cloud service that tracks vehicles. It will enable both monitoring of the vehicle data like the temperature of key components and whether servicing is required, as well as route planning.

With every Oxbotica vehicle feeding data upwards - it could mean that eventually mapping data will be updated in near real time when obstacles are detected, and it will enable smarter planning. For example, Graeme explained how in a queue of ten cars in front of, say, an oil slick, the first vehicle could communicate with the vehicle ten cars behind - enabling it to take a different route instead.

Ocado’s Plans

So how does it fit into Ocado’s plans? And when can we expect to see the vans working for real? Alex Voica, Ocado’s Head of Technology Communications explained to me that the autonomous vans will first be deployed as part of Ocado’s Smart Platform (OSP). This is the name the company has given to plans to whitelabel its sophisticated infrastructure for other retailers, providing them with everything they need for online shopping: from a website, to a warehouse (that will be managed by robots), to delivery.

As the vehicles can only hold up to eight Ocado tote boxes, Alex thinks that the vehicles will be perfect for delivering what he calls a “top-up shop” - for when you need a loaf of bread or some milk mid-week, between your big grocery orders. So perfect for families perhaps - though students may also enjoy the new technology:

“The other thing it’s good for, for example, if you come home at three in the morning and you think I really want a pizza, an electric car is very silent so instead of rolling up with a diesel car and waking someone up at 3am and saying get in the car and drive to that address, having a self-driven little vehicle that can just quietly pull up to your front door, is obviously a better option than just sending a whole van with a human inside at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

It isn’t clear what the exact timeline on these vehicles is. But don’t be surprised if they’re delivering your groceries in the not too distant future.

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