When the world shut down this spring, it didn’t shut down completely. Amongst the ranks of essential workers were the people ensuring e-commerce shipments continued. Simultaneously, a host of robotic delivery startups such as Nuro, Starship, and Neolix found themselves catapulted from curiosities to critical services, delivering medicines and meals to quarantined residents in the U.S., U.K., and China without the fear of contagion. What could have been a long decade of slow adoption and piecemeal deployments was instantly accelerated by the virus, hinting at a future of increased throughput, falling costs, and new business models premised on continuous deliveries.
Foreshadowing the convergence of these trends, in late January UPS partnered with Waymo—the leader in all-purpose autonomy—to deploy its Phoenix-based fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans, powered by the Waymo Driver, on behalf of picking up packages from UPS stores in Phoenix. Unlike its fledgling consumer-facing competitors, however, Waymo would concentrate on shuttling shipments from UPS Stores across the city to its partner’s regional hub in Tempe. Their mutual goal: to understand how AVs’ consistency and efficiency will transform the shipper’s operations, starting with the simple acts of loading and unloading a vehicle.