Driverless delivery vehicle

Self-driving vehicle brings groceries to scores of customers as part of £8m scheme

Image credit: Gateway

A driverless, fully electric vehicle dubbed the CargoPod has delivered groceries, including luxury chocolate, for free to around one hundred online shoppers in Greenwich as part of a multi-million pound government-funded research project.

Takeaway delivery robots were previously trialled in the same part of London, but pedestrians and cyclists fear increasingly prevalent autonomous ‘pods’ will eat up the pavement space for walking and pedalling.

The scheme is aimed at investigating potential uses of autonomous vans, buses and people carriers, but there are growing fears over the increasing use by autonomous vehicles of urban walking space.

The riverside south-east London borough has already played host to a minibus-type shuttle that can steer itself using algorithms and without any direct human involvement. The minibus, known as the UltraPod, conveyed passengers around the vicinity of the former Millennium Dome for several weeks during April this year.

It is expected to begin taking passengers again in September and is currently parked in a car park close to what is now the O2 entertainment venue.

A spokesman for Westfield Sportscars, which manufactured the vehicle, denied it had stopped running because of any technical glitches, saying passenger trials would be up and running again after researchers had finished their work on the delivery aspect of the £8m scheme dubbed the Gateway project.

Greenwich is already home to a relatively sci-fi cityscape, with state-of-the-art cable cars carrying tourists over the River Thames and driverless trains on the Docklands Light Railway ferrying commuters in rail tunnels underneath it.

The borough last year hosted trials of six-wheeled robots that can bring takeaway food deliveries to your door. Manufactured by Estonian tech company Starship Technologies, the bots drove along pavements at slow speeds. Both the CargoPod and the UltraPod also use pedestrianised areas - prompting concern from walking groups.

Steve Chambers from charity Living Streets told E&T: “Pavements are for people, not vehicles – regardless of whether they’re autonomous or not. We must prioritise the safety of people walking to make sure everybody feels they can get out and enjoy their streets and experience the health, social and environmental benefits that walking brings.”

When a bike path along the Thames was temporarily closed several months ago and commandeered for use as part of an UltraPod trial, there was inevitable disquiet from two-wheelers. Pictures posted on social media showed cycle lane markings on the route scrubbed out to make way for the advent of robotic cars. One blogger complained the local council was doing very dumb things” by closing the lane.

The London Cycling Campaign (LCC) confirmed it is continuing to “assess the impact” of the cycle path’s closure and wider issues relating to driverless cars being trialled in the city. An LCC spokesman added: “We have concerns about this.”

Both the CargoPod and the UltraPod use onboard cameras and lasers rather than GPS to navigate. The CargoPod can carry 128kg worth of groceries and drives at around 10 miles-and-hour. It “works” 9am-5pm on weekdays and breaks for lunch at a local farmers market, where it recharges itself using electricity.

Upmarket online supermarket Ocado partnered with Gateway to offer customers in around six residential streets in the redeveloped Royal Arsenal area of Woolwich the chance to have select groceries delivered to them for free by the self-driving microvan. Humans ride on board during the trial but have no actual involvement in driving the vehicle.

David Sharp, Ocado’s technology division, said small autonomous vehicles could in the near future become part of the company’s fleet for “last mile” deliveries.

At a press conference yesterday, he said: “In addition to having an Ocado driver as the person who can deliver your groceries to you, which is really valuable if you live on the top floor of a block of flats and an Ocado driver carries all that water and ice you ordered to the top of the stairs, maybe, if you live in a bungalow and if you don’t mind going to pick up your delivery from the vehicle, this could offer a different way to deliver to you.”

Ocado already makes copious use of robots in its warehouses and employs some 950 software engineers. Sharp said he wanted to give grocers the ability to license e-commerce and robotics warehouse technology from the company to allow them to “create a profitable online retailer” in other countries.

“We’re in the process of wooing retailers,” he added.

Nick Reed from the Transport Research Laboratory, which will analyse data collected as part of the two-week deliveries trial after it finishes this Friday, said: “We need to understand how these vehicles are going to support the future of logistics in the city, whether that’s going to be the supermarkets, fuel filling stations or hospitals. Can we improve the efficiency of the delivery to those environments by using automated vehicles?”

The CargoPod works via a fleet management system called Caesium, which is connected to the internet, as well as a navigation system called Selenium, which is not connected to the internet and therefore is more cyber secure. The technology is the brainchild of Oxford tech company Oxbotica.

Business Minister Claire Perry hailed the UK’s “rich history in the automotive sector” as a spur to the development of driverless cars in Britain. She said the projects in Greenwich marked “another step closer to seeing self-driving vehicles on UK roads.” Several other areas of the country, including Bristol and Coventry, are also trialling versions of autonomous vehicle technology.

In Milton Keynes, where the largest driverless passenger transportation trial is set to take place, 40 four-seater, battery-powered, taxi-like vehicles will take business people around the city centre to destinations of their choice as part of a pilot scheme next year.

Just like the Starship Technologies robots and the Greenwich pods, they too will make use of pedestrian footways, which have been officially classed as “highways” to allow the trial to take place.

Brian Matthews, head of transport at Milton Keynes Council, insisted the town hall had received just two letters of complaint so far from pedestrians about the prospect of having their walking space eaten into.

As part of the scheme, people will be able to order a taxi, specifying their journey in advance, via an app. Controllers in a communications centre will not be able to override what the vehicle is doing and there is no manual way of controlling it.

Matthews told E&T: “The only control the person in the vehicle will have is to press an emergency stop button, at which point the vehicle will stop. The person in the vehicle can’t suddenly say: ‘I want to drive over there.’ It is managed.”

Currently, for health and safety reasons, marshals must be employed to run in front of and behind the vehicle when it is moving. The same is true of the Greenwich UltraPod.

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