"On an individual customer basis, that doesn't matter," Nunes said. "But from the firm's perspective, it does matter because it reduces productivity of the robots and the firm."
Optimizing the productivity and uptime of the vehicles is critical to success. It's one reason why Ford has plotted to use hybrid vehicles in its forthcoming commercial service instead of electric vehicles that would need hours to charge batteries. It's also why the company designed a purpose-built vehicle that can toggle between passenger-hauling and goods delivery, depending on peak travel times.
"To ensure our self-driving service is profitable, our vehicles will need to be running throughout the day, whether they are being used for ride-hailing or deliveries," said Rich, the Ford AV executive.
Further productivity concerns lie in the number of deliveries vehicles can make per trip. Nuro's prototypes contain two compartments so they can serve two customers per trip. Refraction's bots can hold a single order, but a second robot may be required for delivering larger orders. In Nunes' view, delivery robots need to carry high numbers of orders per trip, like the delivery vehicles used by UPS, Amazon and FedEx.
"Make no mistake, this makes money only if you leverage those economies of density and get as many packages on board as possible," Nunes said. "The only way this makes sense is the budget-carrier model: You cram as many people as you can get onto the plane."
For every challenge that a pivot to delivery seems to address, new ones await once those planes land, so to speak. Packages need to be sorted and extricated from AVs.
Currently, companies such as Ford, Nuro and Refraction AI expect a human to meet the vehicle and claim their order. That works for certain customers in certain locations, but not for all. Ford learned in its Miami pilot project, for example, that customers who live or work in high-rises are reluctant to meet vehicles at ground level.
Other questions abound: How do customers with disabilities claim deliveries? Might companies need customers to board vehicles and claim packages from assigned lockers? Are there liability concerns with that? If customers are not home, how do packages make it to their doorstep? Do consumers need next-generation mailboxes close to the curb? How long would food keep?
"You have three main challenges in this, and the last 100 feet is one of them," said Jeffrey Hannah, director of North America for global consulting firm SBD Automotive. "All those things still have to be worked out. And the delivery product has to have margin, and customers have to be willing to pay."
If that sounds like a cynical view of the fledgling efforts to automate delivery, he countered that none of the challenges is insurmountable. The most encouraging signal might be that COVID-19 has revealed strong consumer demand for delivery in ways not considered before the crisis.
"I'm extremely optimistic. I think this has radically exposed people to the idea of maybe never going into a retail establishment," Hannah said. "The value proposition is people's time. Even people on the fence have seen its value, and it can change retail and shopping patterns. Regardless of COVID, delivery is a hard trend."
Nuro is banking on Hannah being correct and that enough consumers find saving time in exchange for delivery fees a compelling argument. In turn, that could drive broader gains in efficiency and safety.
"Would it be safer for everyone, including ourselves, if instead of hopping in the car and racing across town to run errands, we have an autonomous vehicle do much of that for us?" asked David Estrada, chief legal and policy officer at Nuro. "Because the safest thing for you to do to avoid any road hazard is don't get on the road. So it's an entirely new way of looking at an autonomous vehicle."