Automated delivery vehicles have become “a bigger market than moving people” thanks to a spike in demand during the coronavirus crisis.
Waymo, an autonomous driving company owned by Google’s parent Alphabet, has seen a spike in investment during the crisis, raising $750 million in mid-May.
While it initially focused on self-driving vehicles like taxis and trucks, it has signed deals with both Walmart and UPS for its delivery arm, dubbed Waymo Via.
“The reality right now is that goods delivery is a bigger market than moving people,” Waymo’s chief executive John Krafcik told Reuters.
Starship Technologies, who have been working with both Tesco and Co-op to carry out deliveries since 2018, has also benefited from a spike in demand during lockdown.
Twenty of its robots were deployed almost immediately after lockdown was enforced in Fairfax, Virginia, helping delivery groceries and meals to customers stuck inside their homes.
Head of Fairfax’s economic development office Christopher Bruno told Reuters that he managed to get formal approval for their deployment, which would usually take six to 10 months, “in a week and half”.
He added: “I think without a crisis, there would have been some skepticism as to whether this would have been used or not”.
Despite the boost in demand and investment, some have cautioned that autonomous delivery still faces major regulatory and technical hurdles.
Investment firm Autotech Ventures’ managing director Quin Garcia said: “While there’s increased hype around automated delivery right now due to coronavirus, this health crisis will be mostly resolved in a few years from now before automated on-road delivery is ready for mass adoption”.