Will Mohammed come to the mountain or parcel to the customer?

In 2016, Google announced on the Internet that it is conducting intensive work on the creation an autonomous parcel locker. Two years later, the first autonomous parcel machines became everyday devices … in China.

The fact that the first autonomous parcel lockers appeared in China only is not surprising. The Chinese are investing in new technologies, especially in everything that is based on artificial intelligence and has the potential to revolutionise the market. The next revolution awaiting us over the next decade is set to take place in transport. In fact, it is already underway – at least in China.

How do they do it in China?

All major truck manufacturers are currently testing autonomous technology in trucks. The Chinese are already using an autonomous truck which not only is self-driving but also is non oil-consuming – they installed electric motors instead of diesels. Autonomous trucks with a nice sounding name Qomolo have a giant battery where the cab normally is. It not only has a large power capacity, but is also very fast to charge – it takes two hours to recharge and may be done wirelessly. And the vehicle can travel between 150 and 300 kilometres on a single charge. The distance depends on the power of the specific battery model and on how much mechanical energy from wheels during braking can be transferred to an electrical load – the more it brakes, the more energy the truck can recover.

Qomolo trucks are just one of the modes of autonomous transport that are being developed in China. The country is preparing for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The new service, launched in the build-up to the Games, is the railway line connecting Beijing with the ski resorts in Zhangjiakou. It takes 45 minutes to travel 175 kilometres from Beijing to Zhangjiakou thanks to the driverless bullet train, which reaches a top speed of up to 350 km/h. It is currently the world’s fastest train served by intelligent algorithms, without the control of a live driver.

SMS from an autonomous bot with a dog logo

JD.com online store (China’s second-largest e-commerce company) launched autonomous home-delivery vehicles in the streets of Changsha City in Hunan Province in 2018. Vehicles that resemble miniature minibuses are marked with the smiling dog logo of the JD.com store.

The vehicles are electrically driven and run at a maximum speed of 18 km/h. They are equipped with perfect mapping of the delivery area and a navigation system which allows them to be fully autonomous. In case of unforeseen situations (breakdown, roadblock, act of vandalism), the vehicle stops and sends an alert to the central office. Upon the robot’s arrival at its destination, it will send a message to the recipient’s phone with a collection code, which can be input to release the package. So the parcel is collected in the same way as from a stationary locker.

Won’t there be a parcel locker revolution?

The delivery robots reaching their customers are providing the same service as a traditional human courier. However, they face considerable restrictions. They can’t reach the door of the flat, nor can they consult the customer about detailed delivery terms (e.g. minor change of the delivery time or place). Small, relatively heavy vehicles require excellent road quality, which limits their use to the centres of large cities. There is also the viability of investment: building a network of stationary parcel lockers may prove to be much more profitable in the long run than maintaining a fleet of autonomous parcel robots. So, maybe the JD.com autonomous delivery robot project was mainly intended to focus on their brand promotion.

Your doubts related to the further expansion of autonomous parcel robots can be enforced by the fact that there has been no news about any other subsequent implementations. But still there is more and more news related to the use of drones in courier services. If drone usage turns out to deliver on its economic promise, this will mean that road transport, especially last mile logistics, will become the domain of flying suppliers.