GATEway Project: ‘last-mile’ delivery solution?
Autonomous grocery deliveries test possible future technology, says Dan Gilkes.
While much of the news around autonomous technology is understandably focussed on passenger-carrying vehicles, the potential for self-driving goods vehicles is equally important. Take a close look at the traffic on any urban street and you will see that vans make up a surprisingly large proportion of the vehicles occupying our roads.
The TRL-led £8m GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment) research project in south London has been jointly funded by government and industry. It aims to understand and overcome the technical, legal and societal challenges of implementing automated vehicles in the urban environment.
The project has already pioneered driverless shuttles for passengers at the O2 in Greenwich, but more recently has turned its attention to grocery deliveries. Working with home delivery specialist Ocado Technologies, the project has employed a CargoPod autonomous vehicle developed by Oxford-based Oxbotica. This in turn uses Oxbotica’s Selenium software, to enable real-time navigation, planning and perception in dynamic environments.
The CargoPod is based on a standard electric delivery van, that has been converted to run autonomously. Under current restrictions the vehicle has to have a ‘driver’ who can take over the controls if required. In real use the vehicle would not require the driver’s compartment.
Ocado Technology has been trialling the CargoPod for last-mile deliveries within the Royal Arsenal Riverside development in Greenwich. This smart housing development of more than 5,000 homes has little traffic, making it easier for the vehicle to operate among pedestrians and cyclists.
The CargoPod is equipped with eight delivery bays that illuminate and unlock on arrival at the customer’s address. The customer is forewarned of the delivery and has to be waiting at the side of the road to take delivery of their goods.
As mentioned the trial is not intended to be a realistic delivery vehicle or even a delivery method, but it is being used to prove the software and logistics behind autonomous deliveries.
“For us the GATEway trial is all about last-mile deliveries,” said David Sharp, head of Ocado Technology.
Ocado has 580,000 active customers and makes 230,000 deliveries a week, each averaging at least 50 items. More than 50% of those orders now come through smartphone applications, which is one of the reasons that Ocado Technology now employs around 950 software engineers.
The company is looking at the entire process, from user interaction to warehousing and robotics, artificial intelligence to cloud-based delivery algorithms.
However the potential market for last-mile delivery software extends beyond Ocado’s own operations, as the company intends to licence the technology to other delivery specialists.
We are still some way off fully autonomous grocery deliveries, but the GATEway trial will help to guide a wider roll-out of autonomous vehicles.
“This trial with Ocado Technology provides an ideal platform to help us understand where these vehicles could best operate and whether people would accept, trust and like them as an automated delivery service in the city,” said TRL principal research scientist Simon Tong.
“We envisage that cities could benefit massively if deliveries could be made by quiet, zero emissions automated vehicles when congestion is minimal.”