JD.com rolls out fleet of autonomous delivery vans as online shopping giants embrace unmanned operations


The roll out in Changshu city in Jiangsu province began in August after the company tested its Level-4 autonomous driving technology in Wuhan earlier this year. However, analysts say it could take more than 10 years to achieve large-scale use because the technology is expensive and firms need to figure out how to make money. — SCMP

JD.com, China’s No 2 e-commerce player, will deploy 100 autonomous delivery vehicles on public roads in a Chinese city by the end of the year as the country’s online shopping giants push for more unmanned deliveries amid the pandemic.

“We will continue to increase the investment in logistics technology, and we will also make logistics technologies available to the general public, facilitating social infrastructure upgrades,” Zhenhui Wang, chief executive of JD Logistics, said in a statement on Thursday.

Wang said more than 100,000 of the “autonomous robots”, which look like minivans, will be deployed over the next five years, enhancing customer experience and alleviating the workload of frontline workers.

The Beijing-based company said the unsupervised vehicles, loaded up with parcels, have built-in intelligence to plan their own delivery routes from JD’s delivery stations to the recipient’s addresses.

The roll out in the city of Changshu in coastal Jiangsu province began in August after the company tested its Level-4 autonomous driving technology in Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in China, with the self-driving minivans delivering over 13,000 packages and traveling 6,800 kilometres when the city was under lockdown mode.

After arriving at the designated delivery location, the system messages or calls the recipient with a retrieval code so they can pick it up. It is programmed to wait a certain amount of time before leaving the residential compound or office building. If the customer does not pick up the package, the delivery will be rescheduled, according to the company.

The vehicle’s autonomous driving system, which was designed in-house, can reach up to 50 kilometres on one battery charge because its power consumption is 10% of the industry average, or equivalent to that of a standard light bulb, according to the company.

JD’s move highlights how Chinese e-commerce players are keen to apply unmanned delivery technology in real life scenarios. The technology used by JD is similar to that of robo-taxis currently operating on public roads. “[It] uses highly autonomous driving technology and is verified by a cloud simulation platform, which is based on accumulated data from real road conditions,” Qi Kong, chief scientist of automation at JD Logistics, said in the statement.

The robotic minivans will be manufactured by Chinese autonomous vehicle makers such as bus manufacturer Xiamen King Long United Automotive Industry and startup Neolix, according to a JD spokeswoman.

However, analysts do not see the technology becoming commonplace any time soon.

“[Unmanned delivery] is definitely a trend... and there are a lot of opportunities to use the technology on last mile delivery. But the cost, including the hardware, software and applications, is extremely high,” said Zhao Yue, an analyst at research firm Analysys.

“To achieve large-scale use, it will take at least 10 years, if not 20, because the companies need to figure out a business model and how to make money from it. There are supportive policies to deploy unmanned delivery vehicles, but specific implementation of the ground rules from the government are still needed.”

Beijing-based Meituan, the country’s largest on-demand delivery platform, has been testing autonomous delivery systems in closed situations. Last week, the company launched an app-based smart store that offers unmanned deliveries to Beijing’s Shougang Park, which is expected to become a 2022 Winter Olympics facility. Park visitors can have their orders delivered to specific stations in the park, according to the company. Meituan said a similar service will be deployed in the 2022 Olympic athletes community.

Last month Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce company, unveiled an autonomous logistics robot to bring down the cost of last-mile deliveries. It can deliver as many as 500 packages a day to one designated community or campus, carrying 50 packages at a time and covering 100km on a single charge, according to the company. Alibaba is the parent company of South China Morning Post.

Online shopping is booming in China as more people move to digital platforms in place of physical malls. The total number of parcels delivered in China via express firms to date exceeded 60 billion as of Sunday, according to the State Post Bureau. – South China Morning Post

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