Automate the Freight: Amazon Tackles the Last Mile Problem On Wheels

We’ve been occasionally exploring examples of what could be the killer application for self-driving vehicles: autonomous freight deliveries, both long-haul and local, as well as some special use cases. Some, like UAV delivery of blood and medical supplies in Kenya, have taken off and are becoming both profitable and potentially life-saving. Others, like driverless long-haul trucking, made an initial splash but appear to have gone quiet since then. This is to be expected, as the marketplace picks winners and losers in a neverending quest to maximize return on investment. But the whole field seems to have gotten a bit sleepy lately, with no big news of note for quite a while.

That changed last week with Amazon’s announcement of Scout, their autonomous delivery vehicle. Announced first on Amazon’s blog and later picked up by the popular and tech press who repeated the Amazon material almost verbatim, Scout appears at first glance to be a serious attempt by Amazon to own the “last mile” of delivery – the local routes that are currently plied by the likes of UPS, FedEx, and various postal services. Or is it?

Too Much Deadheading

The Scout project is apparently well-supported at the executive level within Amazon, being headed up by a vice president, and is currently hiring a bunch of developers and engineers to work on it in the company’s Seattle research labs. They’ve even gone so far as to partner with Snohomish County, which encompasses communities north of Seattle and is home to many Amazonians, to test the autonomous delivery robot on its streets.

For as serious and glitzy as the effort appears, though, Scout seems a little underwhelming. The video accompanying its introduction is typical corporate fare, and reminds us very much of the announcement of Amazon’s Prime Air drone delivery service in terms of production values. In the Scout video, we see a rather unassuming six-wheel electric vehicle navigating suspiciously deserted sidewalks and streets on its way to a customer’s home. The vehicle itself looks like what everyone is describing it as – a cooler on wheels. Upon arrival in front of the destination, Scout parks on the sidewalk and waits for the recipient to approach, whereupon it pops its top to reveal the Amazon goodness inside. The vehicle presumably then returns to some sort of distribution facility to pick up the next package.

Without reading too much into the video, this scheme seems to have a few problems. Putting aside the difficulties all delivery services, whether human-guided or autonomous, have to deal with in terms of theft and vandalism of vehicles and their contents, the Scout model doesn’t seem to scale well. If, as seems apparent from the size of the thing, Scout can only carry a package or packages destined for a single address, it will spend about half of its time deadheading back to its depot. Deadheading is the bane of any delivery company because it does nothing but reposition equipment without turning a profit. Unless the geographic area covered is especially small and densely populated with potential customers, a model with that much deadheading is probably not going to be profitable.

Starship Trooper

Interestingly, Scout bears a strong resemblance to another autonomous delivery service, Starship Technologies, that has been under test in what seems like the perfect environment for such a service: college campuses. After four years of testing at various sites around the world and logging on the order of 100,000 km (62,000 miles) of autonomous operation, the company recently announced a rollout of 25 delivery vehicles to George Mason University in Maryland. There, hungry students and staff will be able to whistle up a food delivery using a smartphone app, for a charge of only $1.99. Unlike Scout, Starship’s vehicles operate completely autonomously – Amazon says that the six Scout test vehicles will be attended by human chaperones, at least for the time being.

Autonomous lobbying? A Starship delivery vehicle shows off for Washington lawmakers at the capitol on Jan 24. Source: Peninsula Daily News

It seems strange that as big a player as Amazon is so late to the last-mile delivery automation game. Starship Technologies has a half-decade head start on Amazon, and seems to have reduced to practice most of what Amazon still seems to be just toying with. Starship’s vehicles are said to cost only about $2,000, and at two bucks a pop for deliveries, it won’t take long before the things start making money for a company. Amazon seems only to be just dipping its toe in the water by comparison.

But I think the real problem with both of these services goes back to how poorly they scale. Both Starship and Amazon state that their services rely on local distribution hubs; given the 3 km (2 mi) range of the vehicles, that means a lot of hubs will have to be built to cover even a modest metropolitan area. Granted, the urban setting is about the only environment that has the population density for these to make sense economically, but still, all these services are doing is pushing the delivery problem down a level, since these hubs will probably not be able to be as big as a major distribution center and will have to be resupplied frequently themselves. And that will likely be done with trucks (with human drivers, at least for now) that can carry a lot of stuff cheaply and quickly.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big booster of autonomous freight. I still think it’s where we’ll see the first practical uses of self-driving vehicles, mainly because of the savings it represents. In a world where Walmart is offering its drivers $90,000 a year, it doesn’t take long before an investment in autonomous trucks to pay off. But the local delivery loop seems a harder nut to crack, and while Starship seems to have the right market in mind and the technology to capitalize on it, Amazon’s effort seems to be a non-starter, at least in its current form.

83 thoughts on “Automate the Freight: Amazon Tackles the Last Mile Problem On Wheels

  1. One possible upside is that it could schedule deliveries for when I’m home. It would be super-convenient if these things were sitting in my driveway waiting for me when I get home from work.

    On the downside this would give the term “rush hour” a whole new meaning.

  2. One possible upside is that it could schedule deliveries for when I’m home. It would be super-convenient if these things were sitting in my driveway waiting for me when I get home from work.

    On the downside this would give the term “rush hour” a whole new meaning.

  3. The porch pirates will just swipe the entire things. No need going porch to porch anymore. It will be even funnier when some hacker figures out how to get into the things controls and has it take it self out to the pickup point. Once the thieves get the packages out they can either ransom the thing back to amazon or give it to some homeless person to replace their shopping cart.

        1. Don’t even need to spoof the GPS signal just jam it and the cell connection which is fairly trivial to do compared to spoofing.
          They will only know where it last was when it disappeared and by the time the police investigate the thieves would be many miles away.

    1. Nor would they last here in Los Angeles county, they’d be boosted before they made a 100 yards out of the warehouse or a van. People will be waiting for them.

      It’s really a theif’s wet dream. Lots of unattended goods just rolling about on their own. The more sadistic teenagers would simply set a bag of flaming dog turds on top of them as they roll down the street until the cheap Chinese plastic they are made out of catches fire.

      The amount of fun people could have with these nasty little robots is immense.

      1. I’m pretty sure they Amazon would being doing a risk analysis before deploying these things. Also, unless a major security flaw is found, why go after this autonomous vehicle when there are still people having things delivered to their front door and mailbox? A friend in a certain law enforcement position once told me that they really only ever catch the dumb criminals.

        1. Because these robots and contents are easy money. if you see one chances are it has merchandise to steal.You simply walk up and take what’s in it. It’s a lot easier that driving through neighborhoods hoping to find packages to steal.

          The fact is here in CA, if you steal under $500 in goods it’s a misdemeanor – you get a fine and that’s it. There is no downside to steal from Amazon’s robots. The cops are not going to waste their time going after these thieves.

    2. Yep – I’m often in the city of Philadelphia and if vandals don’t beat it to a pulp (like they do to parked bicycles), it will be in an endless loop trying to navigate around an infinite maze of pothole that the city never gets around to fixing. Then of course there are those pesky humans filling up the sidewalks, cars, bicycles, snow, rain, curbs, construction sites and uneven sidewalks. Successful deliveries maybe 10%.

  4. Presumably it isn’t the idea for these creatures to be entirely unsupervised, they’d have to operate out of some larger vehicle with a human pilot, at least for the foreseeable future. I guess there’d have to be an “are you home” check before the sidewalk-slug departs its carrier, as waiting for an absentee recipient and then waiting for the HoboHeater’s return would slow down overall delivery rates.

    1. I was also thinking that it would make more sense for a swarm of these things to get released from a larger delivery truck, instead of a “central” building. If it had a higher top speed, you could drop them off and pick them up on a semi truck tailgate, like miniature KITTs. The main technical problem (other than that you’d wear out a lot of tailgates if you went full on Knight Rider with the deployment) is that you’d have to make separate trips to send and retrieve the Scouts, since the Scouts would presumably need to wait a while for the package recipients to claim their items.

      1. Much what I was thinking, but I’m glad you added KITT to the picture. Wondering where the swarm will hang out while waiting for the truck to swing by? Will they choose a friendly bar and go socialise? Add extensions so they can shoot some hoops?

    2. Amazon already has its roving deals semi tractor-trailer rigs, I would imagine that you could cover an entire zip code with a semi and a few dozen of these “coolers on wheels”. Especially if they are adapted to drop the parcel without human interaction at the delivery site.

    1. a freight truck sitting at the entrance to my neighborhood would piss a whole lot of people off as our streets are not built for freight trucks. We have neither the turning room nor the parking room for one nearby. This is also considering that the large freight truck would need to be parked there at a time when the majority of people are in the neighborhood to pick up their packages which means that it will be a high traffic time.

      This is a solution looking for a problem and really the only place that they fit is in campuses, business campuses, school campuses, etc. In those place is it also a safety benefit to reduce the amount of large vehicle traffic on their paths and they usually have dedicated shipping buildings that can accommodate the larger vehicles.

    2. ..and blocking traffic while it waits for its fleet of drones to return?

      I don’t want to have to dodge these damn things while walking down the sidewalk. I liked the aerial drone idea better.
      BTW, this has no chance of working in Boston. Maybe in Levittown, where the sidewalks are wide and lightly traveled, but not in Boston and certainly not in any suburban Massachusetts town. Aside from the fact that we don;t have sidewalks everywhere, they are often bumpy, with lots of roots pushing them up, and in the winter, blocked by snow and ice.

    1. Package theft is surely the ‘last metre’ problem.
      If these robots have locks, and somehow overcome the issue of themselves being stolen, then they do actually overcome that problem.

    2. It seems to be a country problem then.
      In my country there is no thing as package theft in that scale because the packages cannot be dropped off without a signed document. I – as a customer – am only allowed to allow my parcel delivery company (DHL) to drop off a package WITHOUT my presence when it is safe from third and cannot be accessed by unknown people.
      And this in turn renders these mini-cars useless.
      My country has usually multi-family homes. Not a single House with a porch. So how should this concept work? It can’t because it can not climb stairs and enter buildings.
      This “solution” is looking for a problem that does not exist.
      Amazon offers Parcel-stations where I can conveniently pickup my stuff – and if I don’t order from Amazon, it is a parcel-station from DHL that gives me 24/7 access. No need to be at home, no need to talk to people, no need to wait in line. Pick a parcel-station that is along your daily commute and you’re golden.
      Self-delivering vehicles would ONLY be nice if they would depart from the central station and auto-deliver the parcel-stations. Nothing more, nothing less.
      Skip the “send your stuff home with Bots” stuff. Way to complicated and causing overhead.

  5. I don’t know . . . Kiwi has been operating on and around UC Berkeley for a year or so with some success, a setback* or two and much devotion** from the students. While Berkeley is basically a wealthy suburb of SF (don’t say that out loud!) Telegraph Ave. has a significant population of homeless and crazies. So between them, drunk frat bros. and the children of the Communist elite “driving” (read: crashing) supercars, Berkeley offers a challenging test bed for delivery robots, and, it’s not a total failure. Plus, they’re fun to watch!

    * https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Delivery-robot-catches-fire-at-UC-Berkeley-13470063.php
    ** https://twitter.com/ratherbright/status/1073845768530714624

    1. A university campus is as artificial environment as can be.

      Roll Kiwi out to a real world place, say like Oakland or Sac town and watch what happens. Kiwi gets jacked or shot in no time. You’ll be lucky to find it’s remains. Same here in Los Angeles.

      The teenagers would certainly vandalize them just for laughs. Maybe set them on fire and watch them roll down the street with flames shooting off the top. Or simply kick it like a soccer ball until it breaks

      1. Telegraph Ave. isn’t on campus. Neither are the homeless / mentally ill or bad drivers. All of which insinuate that the OPERATE OFF CAMPUS. Which they do. A lot. It’s actually pretty cool to see them waiting patiently at walk signals and successfully negotiating the intersections.

        Anyway, who knows if this will work out for Amazon. Likely not in this incarnation but they are more capable and robust than you seem to think.

    2. The Kiwi bots in Berkeley regularly get attacked and the contents looted. As the contents are food, I think of it as cracking a nut for the tasty meat inside. Also, they are subject to weird problems, like getting a wheel trapped over the edge of a sidewalk and the robot stoppered.

  6. Maybe if one out of five had a huge glitter bomb systems with cameras and fart spray. They could have a entire Youtube channel devoted to it.

    I believe a prototype has been tested.by an independent researcher.

  7. All of these automated delivery services assume a high-trust environment. Most big cities in the US are NOT high-trust environments. And there is no technological solution to get bad people to leave these little robots alone.

      1. But it doesn’t stop theft. Once the local hoods figure out these robots are loaded with free stuff so to speak. They’ve be looted in short order because it’s so easy. Others will just be wrecked out of sheer sheer spite.

        Look we’re talking about people who do smash and grabs at liquor stores and strong arming pedestrians. Pink doesn’t intimidate them.

  8. First, theft. Second, imagine Amazon delivering packages at walking speed. This will work great for anyone less than one mile from an Amazon distribution center. A kid on a bike is much faster.

    1. Hey, I have an idea! We could monetize those kids on bikes, make them little entrepreneurs (and entrepreneuses)!

      All we need is a kid who’s tired of playing video games when he gets home from school, and wants to make a little money in the “gig economy”…

    1. What? A sunny afternoon, brightly colored/branded robot out for a stroll, delivering a package in a pristine neighborhood to an attractive woman who’s apparently waiting with bated breath for the darn (cute, if slow) thing to finally arrive, set to quirky ukelele music? What’s not to love? It’s like every modern marketing cliché rolled into one spot!

  9. Drones are a non-starter here in the land of 50kt+ winds, trees and Class C airspace to the ground, but these wheeled vehicles are even more silly since it’s also the land of deep and drifting snow. Trucks manned by bipeds seem to dominate this space no matter what (even if Bezos pockets their tips).

    Worse, I think that 11-year-old me would see this as a rolling parts delivery, including high capacity battery. Let us not forget what happened to the poor hitchhiking robot that crossed Canada and parts of Europe,but the minute it hit Philly…

  10. Last mile of surveillance?
    One of the financial payoffs will probably be after the public gets conditioned to bots rolling around them and will accept seeing them in other uses.
    Not to forget: The data that can/will be collected, as these delivery bots (scanners) travel around, can & will be subpoenaed like cell phone info is, not to mention being sorted exploited and then sold.

    Some company is going to want the contract for these in other countries.
    Ask yourself, which ones already (will) have the head start on handling it?
    https://www.popsci.com/china-debuts-anbot-police-robot

    1. Good point. Perhaps the delivery approach is just a Trojan Horse to get a bunch of data-collecting platforms rolling about our neighborhoods. Hadn’t thought of that angle – my paranoia gene must have been underexpressed that day.

  11. I predict that within one year of their roll out (pun intended), the only place you’ll be able to see one whole and in working condition is inside Amazon offices, delivering coffee to the worker bees.

  12. $2 for a last mile delivery when I can send a whole parcel for $5 through the whole of Germany, including the getting it brought up to my flat by the delivery guy? I don’t think Amazon wants to do this, especially considering that the $2 food deliveries aren’t really profitable yet.

    1. I wouldn’t trade my DHL guy (or any off his predecessors) for a robot. He scratch-built an ice-yacht last winter, and is always up to some shenanigans. He even brings a treat for our dog. Nice guy. Glad he’s decently paid.

      That bad-mood dude from Hermes, however…

      And the poor Amazon employees look like they’re already drones — they must be kept to an extraordinarily tight schedule and it’s almost never the same person twice.

      Different business strategies, with different end-results in terms of customer service.

      1. I’d gladly replace the UPS, FEDEX, and USPS delivery people since they can’t follow instructions and not leave packages on the doorstep or you know… ring the doorbell. I finally put in a Ring doorbell so that I can capture them not actually delivering packages. No wonder UPS supports the Olympics, their drivers run faster than most athletes.

        1. Highly variable experiences. My UPS guy is a beast. Full-on SPRINTS from the truck to the door, leaves the package, rings the bell, sprints back to the truck. I barely have time to get to the door and shout “Thanks!” before he’s turning the truck back on and heading to the next stop. His young assistant over the holiday period nearly died keeping up with him, and she was at best half his age. I’ve gone to the UPS depot before to sing his praises – love my UPS guy!

          FedEx, OTOH… Well, if you can’t say something nice…

  13. wow, free motors, wheels, battery just waiting to be picked up! It might work on a closed environment with lots of people – ie uni – but even there I think they will just disappear..

  14. I think the theft concern is overstated. To steal one, you’d have to jam its radio communications starting before it saw you, and keep them continuously and reliably jammed until you compromised its power or radio systems. Otherwise it’s just going to stream your picture and current location back to corporate security.

    I wonder how long until they try to argue that a robot can “stand its ground”?

    1. Or just smack it with a hammer while wearing a Scream mask. Heck it can probably just be fried with a taser.
      Vandalism is what the real problem is gonna be. The USPS is actually gonna have to start filing federal charges for mail and package theft rather than the petty property theft charges they get stuck with these days. :(

    2. “To steal one, you’d have to jam its radio communications starting before it saw you, and keep them continuously and reliably jammed until you compromised its power or radio systems. ”

      LOL NERDS

      https://xkcd.com/538/

      two used lead aprons from a dentist’s office would do the trick until you get the robot into a white moving van with a large Amazon sticker , with better shielding .( read :grounded chicken wire). Just wear a full black bodysuit, a amazon hat, and a mask and your golden.

      Wireless “security” is never truly secure.

  15. I could be wrong, but their is no “last mile” problem from the customer perspective, no so much from the delivery companies and merchants. Unless roads are impacted by temporary hazardous conditions, even rural residences in general receive packages.All I’m seeing in this is one more salvo in the war against labor Paying drivers a just wageis peanuts for Bezos, and the Walton heirs

    1. Yeah it’s all about waging war against labor. People like Bezos and the Walton heirs hate paying out wages to their employees. Heck for the longest time Wal-Mart paid such low wages, that when you were hired they gave the new worker a Food Stamp application. Basically the tax payer subsidized Wal-Mart and now with Amazon.

      1. Don’t just lay it on everyone’s favorite whipping boys. Having employees has always been and always will be the most expensive part of doing business. People get sick, don’t work hard enough, have personal drama, wear out, and eventually die. All the while they are costing you money, some far in excess of what they make for the company. Every company has a strong incentive to replace workers with machines wherever and whenever they can, and that’s been going on for as long as there have been machines.

        1. Well if your business is so inept it can’t make any money with employees maybe you should just fire yourself and your executive cronies.

          That’s not the case with Amazon. Bezos just plain ass hates his employees and grinds them up and spits them out. Guys like him are just so evil and greedy they are like that creep in the Twilight Zone who automated his entire factory to the point it needed no workers whatsoever.

          And it is why the middle-class is dying. Guys like you and Bezos are killing it so they can get a extra bonus check at the end of the year either by automating jobs out of existence or sending the jobs to some Asian hell hole with no labor or environmental laws.

          And you know what? All it gets us is more shoddily made junk that c**ps out after a short period of time and it ends up as landfill. Automation, I’m so impressed.

  16. German Post/DHL just recently announced that they have abandoned their plans of utilizing delivery robots and all that nonsense (drones and bla-bla-bla) because of simple cost/function calculations. It never pays out in any of their projections (and they did run quite extensive tests).
    If this doesn’t work in a country where most people are too plain dumb to even understand that such a robot does not deliver babies (or doesn’t it!) it won’t work anywhere.

  17. Over here, it’s a non-starter. It’s illegal for powered, wheeled vehicles to be on the pavement (aka sidewalk), except for certain exemptions like mobility vehicles. Delivery bots would need to travel on roads, and be road legal.

    The future this brings is WALL-E, humans pollute the Earth with plastic crap, and become too fat and lazy to stand, let alone walk anywhere.

  18. Starship run a fleet of delivery bots in Milton Keynes, England. They will deliver groceries from 2 supermarkets (Tesco and Co-Op) for a delivery charge of £1 (or $1.30) with no minimum spend.
    Never used them but I do see the bots all the time.

  19. This is just a dumb idea, and a total lack of common sense on Amazons part. People are going to be kicking it, trying to turn it over, and kids playing in the street will try riding it. People wile watering their grass as it comes by will squirt it. Not to mention people trying to steel it. Who cares if it has GPS & cellular to track it. A simple foil blanket to cover it will block all those signals from getting out. These kinds of things are just begging for people to mess with it.
    Release that in my town Chicago, and that wont make it one block before it mysteriously disappears, and on the off days of this happening by the time it hits the end of the block it will be missing all its wheels and sitting on top of blocks.

    1. Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. My neighborhood also doesn’t have sidewalks. Also, what happens when it stops at my house and I’m not paying attention to my phone, or taking a nap or something? Does it just sit and wait outside and tie up a very expensive piece of hardware until I get around to taking the package out of it?

  20. I don’t think these would survive in most cities as they’ll get stolen or vandalized.
    As for GPS tracking and the monitoring over a cell connection these are fairly easy to jam or just warp it in aluminum foil or stick it in an RF tight box.
    I can see bored teenagers vandalizing them or some of those people who drive lifted trucks running them over them just for laughs.
    If there’s any homeless people around they would just open it up and take whatever is inside and if you really unlucky they might also use it as a toilet.

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