Autonomous deliveries: The first step in the driverless revolution

Self-driving cars are one of the near-certainties of the future, with everyone from Tesla to Google getting in on the act. But one of the first driverless entries into our lives may not be taxis, but deliveries. Lucy Ingham speaks to Academy of Robotics founder and CEO William Sachiti about his plans to set the autonomous future in motion

Over the last decade, the way we shop has radically transformed. Whether we’re buying a new piece of furniture or restocking everyday basics, for most of us, the online world is our first port of call.

This has led to an explosion of delivery companies, offering a variable level of service. When good, they ensure you get your package quickly, sometimes in matter of hours. When bad, you’re left hunting in your garden hedges or filing complaints about missing packages.

It’s not all good news for retailers either. While they’re making plenty on most of your orders, when it comes to the low-cost stuff, no one can match the mighty Amazon.

But a solution is brewing that is set to resolve online ordering issues for everyone, in the form of a driverless delivery service. And for UK-based customers, that dream isn’t far from reality.

“Driverless vehicles as a solution are coming thick and fast, faster than people know,” explains Academy of Robotics founder and CEO William Sachiti. “I think maybe in three to five years it will be quite normal to see most cars with heavy automation, and driverless delivery is just that next step. In fact, it probably will come first.”

Several companies have already begun testing such solutions, including Ocado, the world’s largest online grocery company, which did a trial run of an autonomous grocery delivery van developed by Oxbotica in the London borough of Greenwich this June.

However, the Academy of Robotics has its own plans, and next year it will be starting the first UK trials of Kar-Go: a bug-like driverless vehicle that is uniquely designed to deliver packages.

The self-driving vehicle designed for deliveries

Kar-Go is designed to transform the delivery experience, which, like many disruptive technologies, starts with an app.

“What we're working on now is much like your Uber app; you can see on an app on your phone a map of where you are and where your car is,” explains Sachiti. “You can see it literally pull up outside, maybe right in your driveway: the closest place it can pull up.”

When the car does pull into your driveway, what you will be met with is a glossy, futuristic vehicle vaguely resembling a metallic dragon, powered by sophisticated AI and an electric engine. How you interact with it, however, is incredibly straightforward.

It’s on-demand delivery at its finest, where it doesn't matter what time of the day it is

“You simply go up to the car – it knows you through proximity of your phone – you press one button and it just opens up,” he says. “When it opens up, it only gives you your package, and inside is a clever revolving mechanism where it knows to select your package and not, maybe, your neighbours. So the car can do multiple deliveries at once, one after the other, in any order based on who's available at the time.”

Even better, Kar-Go eliminates the tedious need to wait around for a delivery to arrive or, – perhaps worse – miss a delivery attempt.

“With us you'll never have that card saying 'sorry you were out' again,” says Sachiti. “Imagine your Uber app, where you can see where your vehicle is, because it's coming to you: we can technically do the same thing with the delivery now where it won’t come if you're not home or it'll only come when you want it to come.

“It’s on-demand delivery at its finest, where it doesn't matter what time of the day it is: if you order and there's someone to send it at 3am, if you're happy for it to turn up at 3am it will, because it’s just a robot – there's no one there.”

Sachiti during a presentation of Kar-Go

Driverless delivery vehicles: On the road within the year

Kar-Go already exists as a fully functioning prototype, and now the Academy of Robotics has acquired equity funding in the form of a Crowdcube campaign that raised £321,000 and which is being matched by an unnamed organisation that Sachiti describes as one of the world’s largest tech companies. As a result, work has started on the full road-legal version of the vehicle, which is set to begin UK-based trials in 2018.

“We've essentially started building the final version of the car to hit the streets in about maybe five or six months, maybe a bit sooner,” explains Sachiti. “We're probably going to do official tests after a few months, where we test it ourselves on private land.

“Everything should work, but when you've got a new configuration there's a bit of tinkering to do to make sure everything is working as it should.”

We think within three years this will be a standard

Once those trials are completed, it will only be a few short years before Kar-Go becomes a familiar sight on many roads.

“We think within three years this will be a standard. Our plan is to do a couple of trials in Europe and Asia simultaneously, and then in approximately 18 months from today we'll raise what we call our series A, which is bigger funding, which allows us to build several hundred units at once and then start scaling,” he says.

“These might still class as trial units, but still they'll be doing live deliveries to live customers here in the UK.”

The Academy of Robotics engineers work on the prototype version of the vehicle

Better than delivery drones?

When most people think of autonomous deliveries, the first word that pops into their heads is, of course, drones. But while Amazon has made a big song-and-dance about its currently entirely hypothetical Prime Air, Sachiti believes that they are a long way from being anywhere close to ready for at-home deliveries.

And he should know. Six years ago, having already made his name in the startup world with solar-powered digital advertising bins Clever Bins and digital concierge company MyCityVenue, he began seriously looking at drone deliveries as his next major project.

How comfortable are you with a really, really, really loud sound of a drone outside your window five, six times a day?

“I filed a patent for something called a sky highway. This was to be an invisible road network in the sky that drones would be able to use to navigate from point A to point B, specifically for deliveries,” he explains. “I thought drone deliveries could work, but we'd need some sort of system on the road, the road network, so why don't we build in the sky?”

Already an expert in the business side of the venture, Sachiti enrolled in a degree in AI and robotics to, he says, “up my geek credentials”. However, the further he delved into the idea, the less viable drone deliveries became.

“Their biggest problem is social acceptance,” he says. “If you think about it carefully, how comfortable are you with a really, really, really loud sound of a drone outside your window five, six times a day doing your deliveries down your street?

“And this thing is loud; it’s louder than a car revving its engine; it’s like a washing machine at full tilt pretty much several times a day. We don't believe that people would be comfortable with that.”

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Convincing the masses: Making the case for driverless deliveries

While drones have a long road ahead if their proponents are to convince the public they are suitable for deliveries, the Academy of Robotics also has to make its own case if its dragon-like delivery vehicle is to be a success.

“How comfortable will people be with an autonomous car doing deliveries? We think they will be, that's why we went for that rather than drones, but I think the biggest hurdle with any new tech is people liking it,” explains Sachiti.

“Just think of Google Glass: Google released this amazing product Google Glass, but nobody seemed to like it. They're great technology, but I think the public's perception can perhaps be the biggest hazard with any tech like this.”

The biggest hurdle with any new tech is people liking it

In pursuit of this much-needed positive perception, Kar-Go’s design has been carefully crafted for maximum appeal.

“If you've seen our vehicle, others call it the alien car or they call it little Toothless - it looks like a baby dragon, they say,” explains Sachiti.

“They say kids are the harshest critics, so I decided we should go down the route where if it pulls up to a residential street, kids should be excited to see it, they should want to take a photo of it and think 'oh my gosh, it’s amazing'. If you can please kids and grandma, then you've won, and that's kind of the direction we're going for.

“So it should be friendly yet exciting, it should be a positive experience. That's why we didn't want to go for the traditional route, we thought lets really stand up.”

Revolutionising delivery: What’s in it for retailers

Of course, it’s not just about the public. For Kar-Go to be a success, it needs to also work for retailers.

However, on that front the Academy of Robotics looks set to be successful, as the driverless delivery vehicle resolves a long-held problem for retailers: right now when it comes to low-cost orders, no one but Amazon can make the business case work.

“With most retailers there's a sort of magic number, which is around the £25 and below mark. What happens with this number is that when – let's say for example a person buys a bunch of razor blades and the order value comes up to let's say £12 – if you go for standard package delivery, I think even Royal Mail doing the cheapest is about £6, £7,” he explains. “So that's up to 30-40% of the order value being just delivery.

For anything under £25, people would rather just go to Amazon who'll deliver it next day for free, and other retailers can't match that

“What happens is consumers would rather go to somewhere like Amazon who will deliver you all this for free; they'll deliver it for free because the huge scale of economics just absorbs their cost. But these smaller retailers – who are still huge: I'm talking billions in turnover – they can't match this sort of next-to-no-cost delivery all the time.

“So they're losing a lot of business, because for anything under £25, people would rather just go to Amazon who'll deliver it next day for free, and they can't match that.”

Kar-Go, however, offers delivery at a fraction of the price, meaning retailers large and small can offer low-cost speedy delivery and thus lure you away from the behemoth that is Amazon.

“When you have a delivery van and you're a van driver, there's a cost of leasing that van, which will cost maybe £400-500 a week, and then there's the cost of labour, you have to pay the driver. With us, you pay a driver nothing, so the human cost is gone completely,” explains Sachiti. “And if you know the going market rate for a driver, a single car could take off £20,000-£30,000 just by switching to some of ours, just in labour only.

“Before you've gone to no-cost fuel, before you're gone to things like that our vehicle is significantly cheaper than a van anyway, so the savings are huge when you start multiplying multiples of several hundred or several thousand vehicles.”

Jobs: Tackling the automation question

Of course, one unavoidable aspect to Kar-Go is that it will, if successful, put delivery drivers at work. Every industry is facing automation, and nothing will stop it coming to deliveries in some form.

But for Sachiti, driverless vehicles are simply a new technology that is poised to create its own job opportunities, much as others have in the past.

If you give it time past that transition period, I think like technology’s always done, we're going to find a new type of job that's going to exist

“1846 London was a city of horses and carts, and this new technology came up called the self-propelled vehicle, and people freaked out saying it’s going to get rid of jobs; think of all the people who do horse shoes, all the stables, all these horses out of a job, and it was predicted to be a disaster,” he says. “But years later it’s one of the biggest industries, employs so many people, new jobs came to be and I think we all agree we're better off having cars than we are having horses and carts.

“It’s the same thing happening again: we're now in a city of manual driving and yes a lot of people are employed in this industry, but if you give it time past that transition period, I think like technology’s always done, we're going to find a new type of job that's going to exist that wouldn't have existed, and – just like its happened always – be completely for the better.”

Then there are the other benefits that come from the oncoming driverless revolution.

“I think the big one is worldwide there's about 1.2 million deaths a year from car accidents, and autonomous cars can reduce this figure dramatically,” Sachiti says. “Like, to literally double or triple figures only.”

Taking driverless deliveries to the world

With a serious business case, it’s perhaps no surprise that Kar-Go is turning major heads, with some of Europe’s biggest fast-moving consumer goods brands expressing significant interest. What’s more, the company is partnering with a soon-to-be-named technology company that will allow it to take the technology beyond the UK’s shores and out into the world.

“One of our investors we're finalising papers with is a very big technology company not based in Europe,” says Sachiti. “They're quite a big household name and in their home country they're quite interested in trialling that at the same time there, so we can be doing it from two fronts. Once I have more information on that I will be able to share, but, for now, not quite yet.”

In the long run, however, the potential for Kar-Go goes far beyond retail.

“When we say delivery most people assume this is for impulse purchases online, but this could solve things like meals-on-wheels and medication. If you think of things like meals-on-wheels where the cost of producing the meal is next-to-nothing, the biggest cost, again, is delivery; or getting medicine across a town or something, people wait when they don't have to, or someone's ill, imagine we can get it right to your door for pretty much nothing all the time, at any time,” explains Sachiti.

“And this is just level one. If we can do this with it now, imagine as time goes on, as it gets better and better, there's going to be many more uses that even I can't articulate yet.”

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