A reboot is taking place in the self-driving world.
A year ago, most of the buzz around autonomous vehicles centered on passenger-carrying robotaxis. The COVID-19 pandemic temporarily grounded several AV test fleets. But it also brought new attention to the potential of using autonomous technology for transporting not just people, but also goods.
Today, makers and developers are looking to home-delivery robots and autonomous cargo trucks because profits are largest in those areas, and the use case appears easier and safer.
"I think we will see over the next years more of a pivot in that direction toward delivery," analyst Colin Langan said in a June webinar presented by the Society of Automotive Analysts.
"I do think that there's been a surprising lack of attention to the delivery market and that delivery probably could get here faster, the opportunity to generate income earlier for these startups. It could even provide an early scale advantage," he said.
Autonomous cargo-hauling fits into three classes: local, 25-mph, last-mile delivery; regional middle-mile cargo trucks; and long-haul highway freighters. A growing chunk of the low-speed delivery is handled by small, three- to six-wheeled sidewalk robots.
Among the latest developments: Wal- mart is adding Cruise, a General Motors affiliate, to its list of self-driving partners in a pilot grocery-delivery effort next year in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Meantime, AV truck startup Gatik is attracting investors with its focus on the middle-mile delivery task, using AVs to connect warehouses and microfulfillment centers with retail stores and distribution centers. The company says it has experienced explosive growth in business since the pandemic, which required adding vehicles ahead of schedule.
Some companies — such as Gatik, Nuro and Refraction AI — are focused on the delivery model. Others, such as Waymo and Aurora Innovation, have developed AV technology for use in passenger or cargo applications.
Among the selling points for using AVs for carrying goods are higher profits, fewer deadhead miles, less need to worry about ride comfort and fewer safety challenges.
For automakers, delivery also offers flexibility.
Jose Muñoz, CEO of Hyundai Motor North America, addressed autonomous delivery during an Automotive Press Association webinar in November.
"We are all-in when it comes to autonomous driving and connected vehicles," Muñoz said.
"We see that because of the pandemic, the robot taxis are going to continue to be a solid solution, because the technology is getting better and better. But at the same time, we also believe delivery as a business is going to be increasing significantly. So we see vehicles on platforms utilized for people transportation or for delivery."
COVID-19 concerns severely complicated the use and business case for autonomous passenger vehicles. Virus fears also pumped demand for contactless delivery systems for goods, prescriptions, fast food and groceries.