pony.ai driverless

Driverless taxis repurposed for online deliveries to cope with lockdown surge

Image credit: reuters

Chinese start-up Pony.ai has announced a driverless delivery service in Irvine, California, that will help cater to the burgeoning demand for online deliveries due to the coronavirus lockdown.

The cars are loaded up with goods from e-commerce platform Yamibuy and hand-delivered to customers by the safety driver, as current rules prevent driverless vehicles from being allowed on the roads without a human operator on board.

Around 90 per cent of shoppers in the US are staying at home due to the pandemic, leading to surging demand for home deliveries.

Pony.ai, which has backing from Japanese automaker Toyota, was valued at over $3bn in February, having first deployed its robo-taxi fleet in November 2019.

Prior to the lockdown the fleet was taking around 150 rides per day in Irvine, which has a population of approximately 200,000 people.

James Peng, cofounder of Pony.ai, said in an interview that the pandemic could help to accelerate driverless technologies.

“As autonomous driving is launched at scale, it can provide a much safer way of transportation with less human contact in terms of both goods and delivery,” he said. “It’s certainly possible for the whole delivery service to be truly driverless.”

The autonomous fleet comprises 10 electric Kona sport-utility vehicles, made by Hyundai, and its deliveries will mark Pony.ai’s first attempt to deliver goods rather than transport passengers.

In March, Pony.ai suspended its public robo-taxi service in the Californian cities of Fremont and Irvine for three weeks.

The company is also testing cars in the Chinese cities of Beijing and Guangzhou. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) eased regulations around autonomous delivery services last year.

In February this year, MIT researchers began testing ground penetrating radar in driverless cars in order to allow them to navigate through snowy conditions and inclement weather.

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