Pass the parcel

Alibaba and JD unveil delivery robots


JD boss Richard Liu delivers

Self-driving vehicles have been generating a lot of buzz, but much of it for the wrong reasons. Back in March, an experimental Uber vehicle, operating in autonomous mode, knocked down a pedestrian in Arizona in the first fatal accident of its kind. Uber immediately halted its testing programme and other big players including Toyota paused their self-driving tests.

The fatality did little to dampen China’s enthusiasm for driverless car technology, however, and two of the country’s e-commerce giants have just unveiled self-driving trucks that could be making deliveries in the foreseeable future.

“We’ve been doing a lot of research on driverless things,” Jack Ma told reporters at a conference where he announced Alibaba would be investing Rmb100 billion ($15.62 billion) in smart logistics.

“What we want to do is figure out how we can make the cars more automatic, more friendly, more like a partner of human beings rather than just a driving tool.”

Alibaba is testing a driverless vehicle called G Plus. Developed with another tech firm RoboSense, the autonomous truck looks like a yellow box on wheels. It is equipped with solid-state LiDar sensors, which deploy spinning lasers to build up a 360-degree image of its surrounds. The technology is cheaper and more compact than other self-driving systems, which often rely on over a hundred laser transmitters and receivers.

Cainiao, Alibaba’s logistics affiliate, reckons that it will roll out as many as 100,000 driverless vehicles over the next three years to deliver packages ordered from e-commerce platforms.

The technology is hardly groundbreaking, says AI expert Calum Chace, who describes the G Plus as the “ugly big brother” of a delivery bot developed by UK firm Starship Technologies.

“Starship has been working on this project for several years, so the Alibaba project looks to be behind as well as ugly,” he told the BBC.

Meanwhile, Little G, a miniature version of the delivery bot, is already roaming around Alibaba’s Hangzhou campus. At the moment, Little G moves painfully slowly. Hotspot 360, a tech blog, notes that the vehicle travels at around 15 kilometres per hour, which is “around the speed of a bicycle”.

G Plus won’t travel much faster and its speed will drop to 10km/hr when it detects people or cars nearby. But once it is fully charged, the autonomous delivery vehicle could travel as far as 60km and carry cargo of 100kg – or around 200 small parcels.

But will delivery bots like Little G and G Plus replace couriers? Probably not. “At present, China processes as many as 100 million packages, requiring over three million couriers. At the beginning of this year, all the logistics companies faced a shortage of couriers. So when daily parcels reach 10 billion in the future, how are we going to find 30 million couriers? G Plus’s positioning is to play a supporting role in the delivery process,” says Chen Junbo, the head of Cainiao’s AI efforts.

In similar vein, Alibaba’s archrival JD.com also unveiled a self-driving van last week. The unmanned vehicle, developed by the company’s research and development centre in the US, has already accrued 17,000 hours of test drives on public roads. Even though the trucks still need to figure out how to deal with traffic lights (a necessary education, WiC would have thought), JD.com says they can handle ‘open road’ driving.

Prior to the launch of the van, JD.com grabbed headlines last year for using drones to deliver packages to remote locations. The e-commerce firm has also unveiled its largest unmanned supermarket in the Xiong’an New Area. The 246 square metre retail store allows shoppers to make purchases through facial recognition technology.

But will the prevalence of autonomous delivery vehicles herald a new era for driverless cars too? “Just because you accept a package from an unmanned delivery truck, does that mean you will trust your life to a driverless vehicle? As far as social acceptance and current technological development are concerned, unmanned vehicles are more likely to be used for logistics, which is relatively low risk,” says EastMoney.

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