Archives for August 2016

What’s the difference between delivering passengers and delivering parcels?

By Ben Ames | August 29, 2016 | 9:08 AM

Boston residents learned this week that a “pop up mass transit” system called Bridj was experimenting with delivering parcels as well as passengers, and could soon use neighborhood lockboxes and mobile robots to carry each package to its final destination.

“We’re going to start to introduce autonomous vehicles and autonomous delivery devices over the coming months, using Boston as a laboratory,” the firm’s 26-year-old cofounder and chief executive, Matthew George, told the Boston Globe.

Commuters in Boston, Washington, D.C., and Kansas City can already use a smartphone app to summon one of Bridj’s 14-person mini-buses, which use routing software to calculate malleable, on-the-fly bus routes. Like a shared ride on the taxi-alternative service Uber Technologies Inc., the two-year-old business is touted as an alternative to typical mass transit options like fixed-route commuter buses or subway networks.

But just as Uber has extended its ride-hailing system to last-mile parcel delivery, Bridj is also exploring ways to put boxes as well as butts in its vehicles’ seats. In a twist on other last-mile parcel delivery services, Bridj plans to use its passenger vans to drop items at local lock-boxes, then deploy either human couriers or small robots to carry each box to its final street address.

The idea faces several hurdles before it takes off in practice, since Bridj hasn’t yet chosen a delivery robot from its experiments with manufacturers, or obtained permission from the city of Boston to drive the autonomous critters down urban sidewalks. Another specter is potential vandalism or cargo theft committed on the slow-moving bots.

Despite these challenges, Bridj’s ideas on ways to improve last-mile delivery are hardly unique. In recent months, inventors in both Israel and in England have unveiled similar plans to dispatch packages to urban locations in wheeled autonomous robots.

The concept of using centralized lockers as distribution hubs for urban neighborhoods is even more popular, with pilot projects underway by some of the industry’s biggest names, including Atlanta-based supply chain giant UPS Inc., Durham, N.C.-based Bell and Howell LLC, and German transport and logistics firm Deutsche Post DHL Group.

Bridj hopes to emerge from this pack of parcel-toting hopefuls by building its service from a mixture of all three popular ideas—ride hailing, central lockboxes, and robot delivery. Only time will tell if the creative recipe works.

Self-driving car startup nuTonomy races Uber & Google to develop robo-taxis

By Ben Ames | August 26, 2016 | 11:02 AM

The race to develop self-driving vehicles took another lurching step forward yesterday when a Cambridge, Mass.-based tech startup called nuTonomy Inc. launched a public trial of its robo-taxi service on the bustling streets of Singapore.

The news comes just days after iconic ride-hailing service Uber Technologies Inc. accelerated its own effort to create self-driving taxis when it paid a reported $680 million to buy the San Francisco-based, autonomous trucking startup Otto and unveiled a $300 million deal with Volvo Car Group to build the technology into sedans and SUVs.

The sight of nuTonomy’s cars may be familiar to Singapore locals, since the company has been running daily autonomous vehicle tests in the city’s one-north business district since April. But those tests took on a high-octane flare on Aug. 25 when nuTonomy first invited residents to use its ride-hailing smartphone app to book a free ride in a self-driving car.

Passengers will not be completely alone, since a nuTonomy engineer rides along in each vehicle, monitoring performance and preparing to seize control if needed.

Formed in 2013 by a pair of robotics engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) named Karl Iagnemma and Emilio Frazzoli, nuTonomy has developed specialized autonomous driving software. The company works with partners to integrate that software with sensors and processors, then installs the entire system in a Renault Zoe or Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric vehicle.

In May, nuTonomy got a turbo boost in its race to test autonomous cars on public roads before industry heavyweights like Uber, General Motors Co. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google self-driving car when the company announced it had raised $16 million in funding from Highland Capital Partners LLC and Singapore’s economic development body.

Despite the impressive technology and jaw-dropping investment funds fueling the autonomous vehicle sector, industry experts say it will be at least another decade until providers can clear the regulatory and social speed bumps of unleashing unchaperoned robo-taxis on public streets.

In the meantime, nuTonomy is posting videos of the ongoing tests of its self-driving cars with unseen engineers riding shotgun.

The opinions expressed herein are those solely of the participants, and do not necessarily represent the views of Agile Business Media, LLC., its properties or its employees.

Thoughts from our editors.

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