The future is bright for autonomous delivery, says Refraction AI CEO

The Robot Report

Despite the precariousness of 2020, one thing is certain as we look to the future: Autonomous delivery will become an integral part of our world.

This massive potential is evident on both a global and national scale — there have been 195 deployments of social robots worldwide in response to the pandemic. The U.S. has seen a 20% increase in preference for contactless operations in addition to a food delivery boom, with the COVID-19 pandemic doubling business for food delivery apps.

Even on a smaller scale, Refraction AI can testify to the surge in demand for contactless delivery. We’ve seen delivery orders increase almost fourfold since March 2020.

As consumers have endured months of social distancing restrictions and stay-at-home orders, they have grown more comfortable with robots and autonomous vehicles and are realizing their true potential in our everyday lives.

With all of this in mind, these are my predictions about what’s in store for autonomous delivery in 2021.

Goods delivery will be the largest sector of growth  

This year, people have pivoted to shopping online out of necessity, with a whopping 64% of shoppers spending their holiday budget online, according to Deloitte.

It’s likely that behavior switch will have lasting implications, with the preference for online shopping versus in-store shopping sticking around post-pandemic. As a result, we’ll likely see the goods delivery sector swell and embrace autonomous technology not only to fill the gaps, but also to improve efficiency and decrease costs to businesses.

Related content: The Robot Report Podcast: Gatik on autonomous vehicles; 6 River Systems talks Shopify acquisition

Highway big rigs and last-mile delivery will embrace technology most

Because of safer use cases and larger profits, we’ll see autonomous technology increasingly utilized for last-mile and big-rig logistics. On the trucking side, we’ve already seen major developments in the works, with Waymo recently announcing the opening of a research and development facility for autonomous trucks and partnering with the Transportation Research Center (TRC) to test them. Companies like Aurora, Ike, and TuSimple are all pushing for trucking deployments on real highways.

In addition, last-mile autonomous delivery has really taken off. At Refraction AI, the pandemic-induced surge in demand brought our restaurant delivery business to another level and led us to expand into grocery delivery over the summer. Other last-mile delivery solutions like Starship and Nuro have also experienced massive growth, with huge market potential as we head into 2021.

Cities will be more efficient and sustainable as a result of autonomous delivery

We’re at a moment in history where we can convert many of the existing last-mile logistics systems from inefficient carbon-burning vehicles into light, efficient, sustainable, emission-free autonomous vehicles. This, in turn, presents an effective solution to limiting urban climate-change contributions — an issue that is nothing short of pressing, as we have only a decade to prevent irreversible climate change, according to the United Nations.

Lidar will continue to grow and move to public markets

As this technology continues to evolve and mature, we’ll see more and more lidar companies go public — just as we’ve seen with Innoviz Technologies, an Israeli startup that produces lidar sensors and perception software, going public and expected to hit a $1.4 billion valuation early next year. The big news about Apple moving forward with producing self-driving cars is also a huge indicator of the trajectory of lidar.

There will be more consolidation among autonomous vehicle companies

We have already seen this happening with Amazon acquiring Zoox and Uber ATG selling their self-driving unit to Aurora. But despite massive amounts of invested capital and herculean efforts to produce viable products, the industry is still moving slowly. This suggests players are girding for a long winter of time to market and profitability, stemming from the realities of full-sized autonomous vehicle technical challenges and unit economics.

Luke Schneider, CEO, Refraction AIAbout the author

Luke Schneider is CEO of Refraction AI Inc., an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based company developing the REV-1 last-mile delivery robot. The Robot Report named it a “robotics startup to watch in 2020.”

He has more than 25 years of experience at the intersection of transportation and technology, Schneider has launched, led, and scaled various early-stage companies in the space, including Silvercar (acquired by Audi in 2017), Zipcar, and Flexcar.

Most recently, Schneider held the role of chief operating officer at wejo, an early-stage technology company that intends to use connected vehicle data and analytics to make roads safer, travel more efficient, and cities more sustainable.

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