FedEx Is Testing the Delivery-by-Robot Waters with the Nuro R2

With pizza and grocery delivery being handled by robots in a number of pilot projects, we knew it wouldn’t be long before one of the parcel logistics giants followed suit. FedEx has teamed up with robot delivery pioneer Nuro to test parcel delivery with the company’s R2 unit, which has been operating in the U.S. in a number of locations, with the company recently receiving a permit from the California Department of Transportation to operate on public roads.

Intended for last-mile delivery, the R2 was initially rolled out with grocery store partners and has also been delivering Domino’s Pizza in some parts of the Houston area. The autonomous, electric R2 is designed to use public roads and contains two cargo bays inside, with two gullwing doors designed to open on the right side of the robot, making it perfect for delivering bags of groceries, pizzas, or small parcels in its interior.

“Working with FedEx—the global leader in logistics—is an incredible opportunity to rethink every aspect of local delivery. This multiyear commitment will allow us to truly collaborate and bring Nuro’s powerful technology to more people in new ways, and eventually reach large-scale deployment,” said Cosimo Leipold, head of partnerships at Nuro. “Our collaboration will enable innovative, industry-first product offerings that will better everyday life and help make communities safer and greener.”

FedEx says that it will use the testing program to explore use cases for driverless deliveries, including appointment-based deliveries and multistop deliveries. Needless to say, this also points to the inherent limitations of the in-the-last-mile parcel delivery business: Someone has to be home in order to receive a parcel by robot, and the robot is not suited to carry more than a few parcels at a time because recipients would have to sort through quite a few boxes to find the one(s) addressed to them.

These limitations, however, are factored into the R2’s design, so we expect that it could be reconfigured to deliver maybe a dozen parcels addressed to different users via a locker system inside its bays. It’s a matter of adapting the design to house more compartments inside for easier access by recipients.

How does Nuro view the consequences of moving away from a human driver with a van who can deliver packages to residences small and large without the recipient being present?

As with FedEx, Nuro has hinted in the past that its robot won’t necessarily eliminate all driver jobs. For one thing, the percentage of recipients who are home all day long is not 100 percent, so there will still be a role for human delivery drivers, especially ones who have to deal with apartment building lobbies, among other scenarios. Nuro also points out that companies that will use delivery by robot in the future will need a human manager to oversee a fleet of robots: filling them up with parcels, monitoring their progress, recharging them, and solving other problems. The advantage for companies using robots in the future will be that one single person will be able to manage several robots simultaneously, instead of one driver delivering parcels around town.

E-commerce and parcel logistics are just two of a number of industries that were heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic, with significant pressure and increases in demand materializing in a matter of days. The concept of delivery by robot was propelled from a niche part of the autonomous vehicle industry to a market where it was suddenly in great demand, though its continued evolution is still likely to be driven by companies seeking to cut costs by employing fewer people.

“The exponential growth of e-commerce has accelerated the demand for reliable, autonomous solutions throughout all stages of the supply chain,” the company says. “FedEx believes that continued innovation and automation will improve safety, efficiency, and productivity for the company’s more than 570,000 team members as they continue to move the world forward.”

Do you think that pizza delivery will eventually transition to delivery by robot in the coming decade? Let us know in the comments below.

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