Things to Know This Week: Amazon’s Last-Mile Ambitions, Cool Ridesharing Future Car

Source: Yafeng Automotive Interiors

January 28, 2019      

Happy Monday, everyone! As you settle into your morning (or afternoon or evening, if you’re in a different time zone) coffee, let’s jump into some of the big trends in robotics last week in case you missed them. We’re talking about a future car interior that has no steering wheel. Really!

1. Last-mile robot delivery got real last week

I’ll admit it, a robot has yet to deliver food items to me, and I’d argue I’m in the 99.9% majority there. But last-mile delivery of items, whether it’s food, medicine, or just regular goods got a whole lot closer to reality for many.

An Amazon blog post outlined that the company was testing a fully-electric delivery system called “Amazon Scout”, which is “designed to safely get packages to customers using autonomous delivery devices. The company said it would be testing the services to customers in a neighborhood in Snohomish County, Wash.

The Scout robots look a lot like the ones from Starship Technologies, which last week also had some news – announcing food delivery availability on the campus of George Mason University. And at CES 2019, Robby Technologies announced a partnership with PepsiCo’s Hello Goodness brand to provide on-demand delivery services for students at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif.

Amazon Prime Scout future car article

Source: Amazon

This certainly doesn’t mean that mobile robots will be delivering all of our Black Friday purchases this holiday season, as there are many challenges for companies. College campuses are a great starting place for testing these services, since you have relatively restricted traffic areas (delivering on sidewalks across the quad) compared with other neighborhoods. In areas or neighborhoods without sidewalks, delivery via mobile robot could be more challenging. Issues of weather, battery life, and limits on the size of items that can be delivered are also being tackled.

For suburban areas, it’s likely that we’ll see multiple delivery types – perhaps a hybrid of a delivery driver stopping in a central location, and then package delivery by a small fleet of mobile robots or even aerial drones. In the drone space, I like what Flytrex is doing, with its package delivery by drone, where the drone doesn’t actually land, but rather lowers the package down via tether. The company plans to continue its testing later this year in North Carolina.

With Amazon now in the game, it not only legitimizes the platform and delivery method, but brings up new opportunities and challenges for delivery robot companies and retailers looking to provide their own form of last-mile delivery option. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some companies looking at possible acquisitions or other partnerships develop in this market.

As I pointed out in this year’s 2019 predictions and trends article for Insider subscribers, last-mile delivery by robot is poised to take off this year. It’s nice to get a prediction right so early in the year.

2. Yet another ‘robots taking jobs’ article

Here’s another lesson in how the media works, as witnessed by last week’s release of a Brookings Institution report about the future of work and the impact of automation on workers. The report aims to take a middle ground between the apocalypse and the “nothing to worry about” crowd, saying that “the discourse appears to be arriving at a more complicated understanding, suggesting that automation will bring neither apocalypse nor utopia, but instead both benefits and stress alike. Such is the ambiguous and sometimes disembodied nature of the ‘future of work’ discussion.”

But that doesn’t fit onto a headline, so instead, we get an Associated Press article with the headline, “Will robots take your job? Quarter of US workers at risk“.

Sigh.

I get it – I’ve been in the media long enough to know how to attract eyeballs, whether you’re trying to sell newspapers or get people to click a link. But most people these days are only reading headlines and summaries, and they’re forming their opinions based on what they see on their Facebook or Twitter feeds.

Brookings Institution infographic future car article

Source: Brookings Institution.

If you’ve read enough articles here on Robotics Business Review, or attended one of our events, you’ve heard a lot of discussion about the impact on jobs because of robots and automation – and most of the speakers are aligned with the results of the Brookings report – yes, some jobs will be lost. But then they follow it up with ideas and the understanding that we will also need to reskill, upskill and move our education system into a system of “lifelong learning.”

Fortunately, we’re still in an economy with extremely low unemployment, and a lot of the growth in robotics are in areas where companies are facing severe labor shortages, such as the e-commerce fulfillment space. As Katie Stebbins, one of the speakers at the RoboBusiness 2018 event told me last year, the time is now to have conversations around workforce retraining, and to stop worrying about the doom and gloom of some ‘future of work’ nightmare scenario.

And if you’ve gotten this far in the article, thank you!

3. Is the construction market the next big thing for robots?

Last week, we published two articles around robotics and aerial drones in the construction market, and it looks like my timing was really good.

Our friends at ABI Research announced findings from a new application analysis report that said “construction and mining represent the next frontier of robotics adoption thanks to automation technology advances.”

Denissegeler Construction PrecisionHawk article Uplift Data Partners construction

Source: PrecisionHawk

In its announcement ABI Research said advanced mobility enabling autonomous navigation will empower robotics vendors in construction, extraction, and elsewhere. In 2018, 28.7% of commercial robot shipments had some degree of autonomous navigation – in 2027, that percentage will be 79.3%, the analyst firm said.

“Construction robots may be involved in specific tasks, such as brick-laying, painting, loading, and bulldozing, we expect hundreds of AMRs in the next two years mainly doing haulage,” said Rian Whitton, a research analyst at ABI Research (and also a RoboBusiness 2018 speaker). “These robots help to protect workers from a hazardous working environment, reduce workplace injuries, and address labor shortages.”

More analysis can be found at the ABI Research site – check it out if you want to purchase the report.

4. What will the future car look like?

Last week, Yanfeng Automotive Interiors unveiled the “Experience in Motion demonstrator 2020 (XIM20)” in Sunnyvale, Calif. The fully autonomous rideshare concept shows people some ideas about what future autonomous vehicles could look like.

The front area of the vehicle is “an observation space, offering comfortable, functional seating with an uninterrupted 180-degree view through the curved windshield,” Yanfeng said in a press release. “This zone is reminiscent of a café or coffee house bar, pressed up against a glass window to allow passengers to feel connected to the world around them while enjoying their journey.”

XiM20 Demonstrator future car interior concept

Source: Yafeng Automotive Interiors

The front zone includes:

  • A Smart Interior Surface Table, where the trip’s sequence is initiated and passengers can control the temperature, sound, UV cleaning, and navigation systems. When not being used, the table remains as a natural wood surface.
  • UV Surface Sanitizer, where UV frequency light sweeps over the interior to disinfect frequently contacted surfaces between trips (a must-have for a bunch of people I know).
  • Storage spaces and bins that recognize forgotten belongings, alerting passengers with a series of notifications that direct them to the stored item.
  • Smart audio systems that include sensors, transducers and software that can “deliver high-quality sound without disturbing others.”

The rear zone “offers secluded comfort where passengers can retreat from the hustle and bustle of their everyday lives,” Yanfeng said. “The space mimics the cozy atmosphere of a booth, with a soft fabric surrounding and technology integrations designed to complement passengers’ moods and preferences.”

Features of the rear zone include:

  • Active Space, a combination of in-cabin sensing and display technology to “enable immersive interaction between passengers and their surrounding interior environment for entertainment, communication, and ambience.”
  • A bulletin board display that features ride information and notifications, with updates and alerts for when they’re approaching their destination.
  • Active cast lighting that “mimics the play of light as it reflects and refracts in natural environments”
  • Touch-free access located on the exterior of the vehicle, a touchless palm scanner confirms that the right passenger is in the car, with guests able to hover their hand over the unit to be identified and gain entry.

Yanfeng Automotive Interiors said the mobile exhibit will tour North America throughout the year, stopping at “customer facilities, Yanfeng Automotive Interiors plants, and campuses across the country.”

5. This week’s non-robot story

Oscar Meyer seeking new Wienermobile driver

You’re right, I just wanted to get the word ‘Wienermobile’ into the column.

6. Catching up on more robotics news

In case you missed it, here are some of our favorite stories from last week’s Robotics Business Review. As always, give these a read so I can increase my page view counts!

Peace, love and donuts!

Keith