The rise of the machine

Date: Monday, August 7, 2017   |  

Autonomous vans could be here within two years ready to deliver shopping. Daniel Puddicombe attends the UK’s first trial to find out more

Driverless vans could be on the UK’s roads by the end of the decade, following a successful grocery delivery trial in London in June.

Led by the Transport Research Laboratory as part of its Government-funded Gateway Project, and run in association with Ocado Technology – a division of the online shopping giant Ocado – the trial used a van called the CargoPod to transport shopping around a residential area of Woolwich Arsenal, south-east London, during a two-week trial that saw more than 100 autonomous deliveries being made.

The CargoPod van was developed by autonomous technology company Oxbotica, and has a payload of 128kg, while the load volume is rated at 2.0m3.

Two people were aboard the van: a safety steward from Oxbotica and an Ocado employee, who helped guide customers through the process of receiving their shopping. “It [the commercial roll-out of driverless vans] will start in small quantities in three years or so, but it’s probably not until at least 2021 until we see a mass-market adoption,” Graeme Smith, chief executive of Oxbotica, told What Van?

But in order for that to happen, Smith said LCV brands need to get behind the technology as the CargoPod vehicle was heavily adapted to allow the firm to fit its software to the vehicle.

Smith explained: “At some point it requires the manufacturers because we’ve had to convert this vehicle so we can drive it electronically – we’ve had to convert the throttle, brakes and steering so we can control it. At the moment commercial vehicles don’t come like that so the manufacturers will need to get on board.”

Smith claimed interest is rising among OEMs, but declined to name which companies he is talking to. He also stated that driverless vans would become more appealing once there is a greater uptake of electric vehicles within the marketplace: “I think they [commercial vehicle manufacturers] tend to lag behind the car manufacturers. I think passenger cars cover a different field of reference because they’re interested in developing some of the tech themselves, but as more vans become electric rather than petrol or diesel, there are more capabilities of building mass-market driverless LCVs.”

Van drivers, however, can breathe a sigh of relief as David Sharp, head of Ocado Technology’s 10x department, has indicated their role isn’t quite obsolete yet: “We’d probably offer a variety of last-mile services: if people would like a driver, they can have one; if they want an autonomous van they can have one; people who want to go for click and collect, they can do that. It just becomes another way of getting goods,” he told What Van?

“The main difference between an autonomous vehicle and a driven vehicle is that you don’t need to give a driver a break. So you may squeeze in a couple more deliveries in any particular run. Other than that, the way they drive is likely to be similar and so the other main difference is that you don’t need to pay the driver, so it may become a way of delivering stuff at a slightly lower cost.”

Smith, however, claimed the role of a van driver would change dramatically with the advent of autonomous LCVs. “If you take existing drivers’ driving time and replace it with things like paperwork it will make the whole business model work. So, for example, if you’re Ocado, maybe five minutes of every journey is taken up with paperwork – if you can then allow the driver to do paperwork while the vehicle is driving itself that gives you an extra 20 minutes to an hour that you wouldn’t have had before,” he said, adding that van drivers needn’t be worried about losing their jobs to a machine, citing typists who didn’t lose their positions when computers were in their infancy.

Oxbotica’s chief executive added that the possible savings offered by driverless vans could be huge: “If you talk to fleets, typically over the lifetime cost of the vehicle, 15% is the asset cost, the rest of it is labour. So if you can increase your asset cost by 1% (assuming a slight price premium for driverless vans) and reduce your labour by 10% then it’s going to be win-win,” he concluded.


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