Google’s Robotic Investments: Driverless Cars Supported by Home Delivery Robots?

In the news last week, it was announced that “Google plans to build and launch onto city streets a small fleet of subcompact cars that can operate without a person at the wheel.” The electric powered cars with a range of about 100 miles wouldn’t even have a steering wheel, or gas and brake pedals. “The vehicles will use sensors and computing power, with no human needed.”

Coincidentally, that same week ARC Advisory Group’s Dick Slansky wrote an article on robotics where Google’s investments were discussed. “IT companies like Google have acquired no less than eight robotics companies… The fact that Google, a company with an impressive record in technological innovation, has acquired a significant amount of robotic engineering talent and IP is a very telling vote of confidence in the overall robotics sector. While Google is keeping its robotics strategies close to the vest for now, speculation ranges from the company using robots to improve factory automation, making door-to-door deliveries, or even for space exploration” (emphasis added).

So could Google be developing driverless vehicles with anthropomorphic robots capable of carrying packages from the delivery vehicle to the customer’s front door? When I talked with Dick, he did not dismiss the possibility. One of the companies Google acquired including the Japanese startup that developed SCHAFT the winner of the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) in 2013. This anthropomorphic robot demonstrated a variety of very human abilities. These included “driving a vehicle; walking and climbing over ramps, steps, and rubble; negotiating doorways; clearing rubble from its path; cutting a hole in a wall with a power tool; connecting a fire hose; and shutting off a series of valves.” A robot that could do these things is clearly capable of delivering a package to a front door.

Legislative hurdles are beginning to clear. By the summer of 2015, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles must publish rules allowing the public to use true driverless cars. And with omni-channel initiatives there comes increased emphasis on a courier model as a mechanism of achieving quick home deliveries.

But this will not happen overnight. The car Google is developing is a subcompact with limited range. Vans with larger ranges would clearly be better for home deliveries. And just because something can be done, does not mean it can be done economically or efficiently. However, both Dick and I agreed that if you are looking for high tech solutions for home delivery, this is much more feasible than the Amazon drones that got so much attention.

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