Try convincing your children they’re not in the middle of some dystopian nightmare, when a headless robot unpacks itself from the back of a driverless car to deliver a pizza on a Friday night.
That’s the future that Ford is envisioning in order to solve what researchers are calling “the last 50 foot problem”. If an autonomous vehicle arrives at your house for a delivery, the longstanding question has been: “Who is going to carry the package, grocery bags or pizza to your doorstep?” The answer is, of course, a robot.
According to Bloomberg, Ford has been trying out “Digit”, an android that has two legs and two arms capable of carrying up to 40 pounds, in addition to a camera in its torso topped with a laser radar sensor.
Despite its odd look, business minds have the far more important question of profit on their minds. Driverless delivery reduces the focus on safety of human passengers and helps solve a burgeoning problem that has developed as a result of the rise of online shopping: delivery costs. For example, Amazon spent $27 billion on deliveries last year alone.
Experts see delivery costs plunging by about 60% or more by removing human drivers from the equation. Ford’s goal is to deploy these delivery robots as early as 2021, alongside of its planned autonomous vehicle fleet that will move people and packages around the clock.
Craig Stephens, director of controls and automation in Ford’s research and advanced engineering said: “We’re going to have an AV fleet out there, and my goal is to get robots to be able to be there and ready at the same time.”
Human reaction is one part of Ford’s research, which will kick off with real world tests inside of Ford factories, and on roads in Michigan and Pittsburgh. Despite the odd appearance, Stephens doesn’t believe the robots are offensive to look at: “Digit looks actually pretty friendly to me. The inoffensive appearance is going to be a key thing for people to be able to trust a robot.”
Digit was created by Agility Robotics, a start up run by fewer than 30 people. The company’s CTO, Jonathan Hurst, said that he hasn’t seen anybody reacting negatively when running into the robot, despite it’s bizarre look.
Hurst said: “I have a lot of people ask us, ‘Could this be perceived as creepy? There is a small subset of people who stay far back and whip out their smartphone and starting taking video.”
Though Hurst says the robot will evolve, the company doesn’t see any need to give it a head. In fact, giving it a head might freak people out more, Hurst said: “If it looks very close to an animal or a human but is not quite there, then immediately people are revolted by it. And we didn’t physically need a head up there for our current perception needs.”
Another advantage to driverless robots is how light they are, as many of the components that help them function are embedded in the car, not the robot.
For instance, the sensors in the car used to navigate will also be used to help determine the path the robot will take to the house when it stops for a delivery. Once the robot has completed its task delivering the package, it folds itself into a square, and slides into a drawer in the back of the vehicle. And basic deliveries are not just the only thing that Ford is looking at – the two companies are also looking at dealing with urban scenarios where robots would have to gain access to apartment buildings.
The plan is to introduce the robots to market with human assistance, at first. Hurst concluded: “We’re not going to be deploying them by the thousands and replacing all people who do the job right away.”
Ford has already put the total addressable market for autonomous delivery at about $332 billion.