China’s on-demand service platform Meituan Dianping has made its first grocery delivery in the outskirts of Beijing with self-designed autonomous delivery vehicles, as the country’s tech companies push further into “contactless” initiatives spurred by the Covid-19 outbreak.

Why it matters: Tech firms in China are ramping up “contactless” delivery initiatives as conditions surrounding the deadly virus has created an opportunity to test experimental technologies for wider adoption.

  • Earlier this month, e-commerce platform JD.com completed its first delivery of medical aid using a fleet of autonomous vehicles in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak.
  • A company representative said it has stepped up a plan to commercialize delivery robots, with more than 30 units in production to be deployed in Wuhan.  

Details: Beijing-based Meituan began piloting its driverless delivery service in the city’s northeastern Shunyi district earlier this month, according to an announcement on its official account on messaging platform WeChat released Tuesday (in Chinese).

  • Meituan currently deploys two driverless vehicles to deliver groceries to customers in three neighborhoods within a five-kilometer (around three-mile) radius of its pickup station. It requires human employees to place goods into the vehicles before they pull out and begin deliveries.
  • The electric delivery robot has a range of 100 kilometers (62 miles), has a maximum capacity of 100 kilograms or about 220 pounds, and can complete a maximum of five orders per trip, the company said.
  • A company spokeswoman declined to specify the average number of orders the automated delivery vehicles make per day.
  • Orders delivered by unmanned vehicles are generally those with bulkier items or those which require longer rides. Automated vehicles also perform deliveries to communities which have reported confirmed virus cases, a business lead told Chinese media.
  • This is the first time Meituan’s delivery robots are running on Beijing’s public roads, and they are proceeding with caution. Vehicles run at a pace of 20 kilometers or 12 miles per hour, the company said, adding that it now works as an alternative last-mile delivery solution to help alleviate human workforce shortages.
  • Driven by machine-learning algorithms and a package of hardware including Lidar, radar, and cameras, the price of driverless technology is high. Each of Meituan’s robots cost RMB 100,000 ($14,220) each, Chinese media reported citing a technical lead.

Context: Meituan began work on driverless delivery in 2016, followed by several pilot projects in geo-fenced areas such as university campuses. It launched its open-source platform for unmanned delivery two years later.

  • Widescale adoption of driverless delivery is a long-term initiative, as it still requires human and robot collaboration to contend with different traffic scenarios and all sorts of weather.
  • Still, machines may be able to help human delivery workers by sparing them from more taxing duties, such as night shifts or extreme weather conditions, Xia Huaxia, Meituan’s chief scientist said during an interview with TechNode last year.
  • Restaurant and beverage chains are also innovating operations to accommodate “contactless” deliveries and pickups, Reuters reported. Fast food chains with their own delivery fleets are leaving orders placed via app in specified areas for customers to pick up, while Starbucks customers wait outside cafes while their drinks are prepared.

Jill Shen

Jill Shen is Shanghai-based technology reporter. She covers Chinese mobility, autonomous vehicles, and electric cars. Connect with her via e-mail: jill.shen@technode.com or Twitter: @yushan_shen

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