Self-Driving Cars That Are Essentially Boxes-on-Wheels

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[Ed. Note: For reader’s interested in Dr. Eliot’s ongoing business analyses about the advent of self-driving cars, see his online Forbes column:]

Watch out, the rolling boxes are on their way.

Many call them a box-on-wheels.

That’s referring to the use of AI self-driving driverless autonomous car technology to have a vehicle that would be driverless and would deliver goods to you or more.

Let’s start with a typical use case for a box-on-wheels.

You could potentially order your groceries online from your neighborhood grocer, and a little while later those groceries pull-up in front of your house as contained in a so-called box-on-wheels.

You walk outside to the vehicle, enter a special PIN code or some other form of recognition, and inside are your groceries. You happily carry the grocery bags up to your apartment or house and do so without ever having to drive your car. The vehicle drives off to deliver groceries to others that have also made recent orders from that grocery store.

Notice that I mentioned that this is considered a use of AI self-driving car technology.

It is not the same as what most people think of as an AI self-driving car per se.

I say that because the vehicle itself does not necessarily need to look like a passenger car.

A box-on-wheels can be a different shape and size than a normal passenger car, since it is not intending to carry humans. It is intended to carry goods.

If you ponder this aspect of carrying goods, you’d likely realize that it would be best to design the vehicle in a manner intended to carry goods rather than carrying humans.

A passenger car is considered optimized to carry people. There are seats for people. There are armrests for people. There are areas for people to put their feet. All in all, the typical passenger car is not particularly suited to carry goods.

Thus, I think you can understand the great value and importance of developing a vehicle optimized for carrying goods, of which it is not bound to the design of a passenger carrying car.

There are a wide variety of these designs all vying to see which will be the best, or at least become more enduring, as to meeting the needs of delivering goods.

Some of these vehicles are the same size as a passenger car.

Some of these vehicles are much smaller than a passenger car, of which, some of those are envisioned to go on sidewalks rather than solely on the streets.

The ones that go on the sidewalks need to especially be honed to cope with pedestrians and other aspects of driving on a sidewalk, plus there often is the need to get regulatory approval in a particular area to allow a motorized vehicle to go on sidewalks.

Having such a vehicle though on a sidewalk can be a dicey proposition.

Some designers are going to the opposite extreme and considering boxes-on-wheels that are the size of a limo or larger.

The logic is that you could store even more groceries or other goods in one that is larger in size.

This could cut down on the number of trips needed to deliver some N number of goods to Y number of delivery spots. Suppose a “conventional” box-on-wheels allowed for up to 6 distinct deliveries, while the limo version could do say twelve.

The downside of the limo sized box-on-wheels is whether it can readily navigate the roads needed to do its delivery journey. With a larger size, it might not be able to make some tight corners or other narrow passages to reach the intended recipient of the goods.

Indeed, let’s be clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution here.

Box on Wheels Free-for-All Today

That doesn’t though suggest that all of the variants being tried today will survive.

I’m sure that many of the designs of today will either morph and be revised based on what seems to function well in the real-world, or some designs will be dropped entirely, or other new designs will emerge once we see what seems to work and what does not work.

It’s a free-for-all right now.

Large sized, mid-sized, small-sized, along with doors that open upward, downward, or swing to the side, and some with windows and others without windows, etc.

Let’s consider an example of a variant being tried out today.

Kroger, a major grocer, has teamed up with Nuro, an AI self-driving vehicle company, for the development of and testing of delivery vehicles that would carry groceries. The squat looking vehicle has various separated compartments to put groceries into.

There are special doors that can be opened to then allow humans to access the compartments, presumably for the purposes of putting in groceries at the grocery store and then taking out the groceries when the vehicle reaches the consumer that bought the groceries.

This kind of design makes a lot of sense for the stated purpose of transporting groceries. You want to have separated compartments so that you could accommodate multiple separate orders.

Maybe you ordered some groceries, and Sam that lives two blocks away also ordered groceries. Naturally, you’d not want Sam to mess around with your groceries, and likewise you shouldn’t mess around with Sam’s groceries. Imagine if you could indeed access other people’s groceries — it could be a nightmare of accidentally taking the wrong items (intended for someone else), or accidentally crushing someone else’s items (oops, flattened that loaf of bread), and maybe intentionally doing so (you’ve never liked Sam, so you make sure all the eggs he ordered are smashed).

There has to be also be some relatively easy way to access the compartments.

The locking mechanism might involve you entering a PIN code to open the door. The PIN would have been perhaps provided to you when you placed your grocery order.

Or, it might be that your smartphone can activate and unlock the compartment door, using NFC or other kinds of ways to convey a special code to the box-on-wheels.

It could even be facial recognition or via your eye or fingerprint recognition, though this means that only you can open the door. I say this because you might be unable to physically get to the box-on-wheels and instead have someone else aiding you, maybe you are bedridden with some ailment and have an aid in your home, and so if the lock only responds to you it would limit your allowing someone else to open it instead (possibly, you could instruct the lock via online means as to how you want it to respond).

I mention these aspects because the conventional notion is that the box-on-wheels will most likely be unattended by a human.

This does bring up some facets about these boxes on wheels that you need to consider.

First, there’s the aspect of having a human on-board versus not having a human on-board:

  • Human attendant
  • No human attendant

I’ve carefully phrased this to say human attendant.

We don’t need to have a human driver in these vehicles since the AI is supposed to be doing the driving.

This though does not imply that the vehicle has to be empty of a human being in it. You might want to have a human attendant in the vehicle. The human attendant would not need to know how to drive. Indeed, even if they knew how to drive, the vehicle would most likely have no provision for a human to drive it (there’d not be any pedals or steering wheel).

Why have a human attendant, you might ask?

Aren’t we trying to take the human out of the equation by using the AI self-driving car technology?

Well, you might want to have a human attendant for the purposes of attending to the vehicle when needed. The friendly attendant leaps out of the vehicle when it reaches my curb. They come up to my door, ring the doorbell, and provide me with my grocery bags.

Think too that the human attendant does not need to know how to drive a car and doesn’t need a driver’s license.

Having a human attendant can be a handy “customer service” aspect.

This brings up another aspect about the box-on-wheels design, namely whether it can potentially do driving in a manner that would be beyond what a human would normally do.

Assuming that the groceries are well secured and packaged into the compartments, the box-on-wheels could make sharp turns and brake suddenly, if it wanted or needed to do so. If there’s a human attendant on-board, those kinds of rapid maneuvers could harm the human, including perhaps some kind of whiplash or other injuries.

When Not In Motion

Here’s another facet to consider.

How long will the box-on-wheels be at a stopped position and allow for the removal of the goods?

From the grocer viewpoint, you would want the stopped time to be the shortest possible.

For every minute that the box-on-wheels sits at the curb and is waiting for the delivery to be completed, it is using up time to get to the next destination. Those further along in the delivery cycle are all waiting eagerly (or anxiously) for the box-on-wheels to get to them.

Suppose a person comes out to the box-on-wheels, opens the compartment designated for their delivery, and for whatever reason rummages around in the grocery bag, maybe doing an inspection to make sure the bag contains what they ordered. They decide to then slowly remove the bag and slowly walk up to their home and slowly put the bag inside the home. Meanwhile, they have four other bags yet to go that are sitting in the compartment. They walk out slowly to get the next bag. And so on.

If the system had calculated beforehand that it should take about four minutes to remove the bags by the recipient, it could be that this particular stop takes 20 minutes or even longer.

How can you hurry along the recipient?

If you had a human attendant, you’d presumably have a better chance of making the deliveries occur on a timelier basis. Without the human attendant, you could possibly use a remote human operator to urge someone to finish removing their bags. The AI system could of course also emit a reminder, having been programmed to be deal with the delivery aspects of the box-on-wheels.

Types Of Goods Being Carried

One other aspect about the box-on-wheels involves the kinds of goods that it is intended to carry.

If there are frozen food items, you’d presumably want the compartment to be refrigerated so that the frozen items would not melt during the journey. You cannot know for sure the length of time to undertake the deliveries, given the vagaries of traffic and also the vagaries of the time during the delivery moment, and thus you can’t just hope that the food will remain in proper shape during the journey. Using conventional air conditioning might not be enough to keep the food at the proper temperature.

You might be tempted to say that only certain kinds of groceries can be delivered via the box-on-wheels. Yes, you could make that constraint, but you’ve now made for a dilemma for the customer. If I cannot get my frozen fish and frozen pizza from the grocery store, I’ll need to make my own trip there. If I am going to make my own trip there, why futz with the box-on-wheels delivery service?

This also logically takes us to another consideration about boxes-on-wheels.

If true AI self-driving cars become prevalent, would I even need to use a box-on-wheels?

In other words, if I owned a true AI self-driving car, which is considered a Level 5, I could just tell it to go to the grocery store and pick-up my goods. No need to use the box-on-wheels.

The counter-arguments are that not everyone is necessarily going to have a true AI self-driving car, and will be relying instead on using other people’s AI self-driving cars to get around.

In that sense, they might as well then use the box-on-wheels for getting their groceries. Also, even if you had your own true AI self-driving car, it might not have the refrigerated capabilities that presumably the box-on-wheels might have.

I’ve mentioned the idea of keeping food cold, but there’s also the potential desire of keeping food hot.

Perhaps from the grocery store, I order some cooked chicken that the grocery store is selling at their in-store buffet. I’d want the chicken to remain hot during the journey to me. Thus, the compartments might need refrigeration and they might also need some form of heating capability.

This also brings up the recent efforts by Domino’s Pizza and by Pizza Hut to consider using AI self-driving vehicles to delivery pizza. Pizza Hut has teamed-up with Toyota and opted to try and get ovens closer to the door of the customer. These kinds of boxes-on-wheels are potentially going to either be keeping the pizza warmed-up or could possibly even be cooking the pizza during the journey of performing the delivery.

They still face the same issue about having the customer come out to the box-on-wheels to get the goods.

In the case of Domino’s, they teamed-up with Ford and did an interesting experiment. They did a month long test in Ann Arbor, Michigan and had a human driver that was instructed to not interact with the customers at all. The vehicle contained the pizza that was to be delivered, placed in the backseat area and reachable to the customer by the vehicle rolling down the back window, and it was a pretense that there wasn’t any human to interact with, thus, similar to picking up a pizza from an AI self-driving vehicle.

Some of the customers indicated they liked the idea of not having to interact with a human attendant. I can see why they might say this, having gotten pizza delivery and had to make small talk with the driver or otherwise deal with giving a tip, I’ve at times dreaded ordering from my local pizza place simply due to the need to interact with the delivery person.

As mentioned earlier herein, they discovered the parking problem issue of knowing where to best stop the vehicle to accommodate the customer (recall that they were pretending that the human driver could not interact with the customer — this is somewhat the case for today’s AI, but in the future should not be).


Boxes on wheels.

There’s little doubt that in spite of the potential emergence of AI self-driving cars, we’ll still need some kind of specialized vehicles to do deliveries.

An AI self-driving car that is optimized for carrying passengers will not be as optimized for carrying goods. This though does not mean that they cannot carry goods, and in fact we ought to expect that AI self-driving cars will indeed be carrying goods. There are some designs for AI self-driving cars that allow for a ready switch-over of the interior to be for purposes of carrying people to instead carrying items.

We are still a long way away from having true AI self-driving cars.

And, they will not become prevalent overnight.

Thus, there is definitely an opportunity for the advent of boxes-on-wheels. There are many opportunities available in this niche and it provides an exciting source of challenges.

The phrase “box on wheels” sounds perhaps demeaning to some, but it has the potential for being a money-making way to undertake deliveries, can reduce the cost of delivery, can aid society by enabling delivery, and is going in the direction of a society that wants to order online and have items delivered to them.

Two cheers for box-on-wheels.

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Copyright © 2019 Dr. Lance B. Eliot

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Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, was a professor at USC, headed an AI Lab, top exec at a major VC.

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