As China ramped up its efforts to counter the spread of Covid-19, delivery robots have garnered newfound attention.
The novel coronavirus, first reported in late December in Wuhan, has now infected more than 80,000 people and killed nearly 3,000 in the country. The government responded by locking down entire cities. On Jan. 23, the largest quarantine measures in history went into effect in Hubei, the province at the center of the outbreak.
This article was originally published in Drive I/O, TechNode’s biweekly newsletter on autonomous and electric vehicles. It was co-authored by Chris Udemans.
Beijing has since pledged to increase its support to upgrade the nation’s freight delivery systems. The government also asked companies for solutions to contain the virus, including various forms of “contactless shopping deliveries,” as people around the country became afraid to leave their homes.
At this moment of crisis, some businesses saw opportunities for largely unproven technologies. In an effort to protect the public, lifestyle services giant Meituan and e-commerce firm JD.com started using their unmanned delivery technologies in some of the worst-hit areas.
Just 60% of deliverymen have returned to work in Wuhan since authorities cut the city off from the world. The remainder have been unable to re-enter the city since the lockdown began. Worse still, those in Wuhan have been under both physical and mental pressure from the burgeoning workload and concerns over the epidemic.
With drivers locked in and locked down, the companies had no choice but to experiment with the new tech.
JD’s self-driving robot made its first delivery of medical supplies to Wuhan’s Ninth Hospital on Feb. 6. The facility, designated for treating seriously ill patients, is just 600 meters from a JD distribution center. The close proximity put delivery people at risk of infection, Zhou Jianbin, a district manager of JD Logistics in Wuhan, told The Paper.
The majority of deliveries in Hubei include masks, protective clothing, and other medical supplies. However, the process is not completely automated. JD employees need to place orders in the cars before the deliveries begin. Typically, the robots will alert a user that their delivery is ready for collection and wait 30 minutes for them to collect the goods.
The robots are responsible for half of all daily deliveries, around 10-20 orders each day, according to Zhou. Although only two robots are currently being deployed in the city, JD said it is gradually making a shift to serve the nearly Ninth Hospital with fully driverless delivery.
Due to a significant spike in demand for unmanned deliveries in Wuhan and surrounding cities, the commercial launch of JD’s robot delivery service came well ahead of schedule, said Qi Kong, head of autonomous driving and JD Logistics. The e-commerce giant had initially planned to start mass-producing its driverless vehicles by the end of the year, but now expects to roll out more than 50 robots by the end of April.
A week after JD debuted its robots in Wuhan, Beijing-based Meituan began piloting two driverless delivery robots in the city’s northeastern Shunyi district. Running at just 20 kilometers (12 miles) per hour, the pint-sized vehicles deliver groceries to residents of three neighborhoods within a five-kilometer radius of its pickup station. Each robot delivers up to five orders per trip.
The company did not specify how many orders its autonomous fleet delivers per day. According to Meituan, the robots work as an alternative form of last-mile delivery to help alleviate the shortage of delivery drivers.
The company is also piloting robots at restaurants in Beijing that bring food from kitchens to deliverymen or customers waiting for takeaway meals, in an effort to limit contact between people. The company claims that these robots are not “replacing humans entirely,” as the service currently still requires human-robot collaboration.
Technical and regulatory hurdles
While the Covid-19 has offered unmanned delivery providers both government support and an unprecedented opportunity to put their technology through its paces, these companies have had trouble driving adoption of autonomous delivery systems, as regulatory and technological hurdles do still present significant roadblocks to companies such as Meituan and JD.
Regulations governing autonomous driving have long frustrated automakers and tech companies, but the situation is even stickier for unmanned delivery services in China.
To begin with, there is no space on roads dedicated specifically for delivery robots, Zhao Bin, head of public affairs at JD Logistics, told Chinese media in February. Before JD launched its Wuhan Ninth Hospital robot delivery service during the outbreak, the Chinese e-commerce giant had to get hasty approval from government agencies to survey the roads and get maps drawn.
Current Chinese laws are not well-equipped to govern self-driving vehicles, which are not legally allowed to drive on public roads. Various pilot programs are able to operate only because the government issues temporary license plates to approved self-driving companies. Without this permission, the use of these vehicles is illegal and companies must bear all liability for accidents.
The Chinese government has given JD and Meituan permission to run robot deliveries, but many more companies can only run their services in geo-fenced areas such as office parks and school campuses.
Meanwhile, other firms are unable to even get their plans off the ground. According to Chinese media reports, one anonymous self-driving company initially planned to use low-speed driverless vehicles to transport meals from a restaurant in Beijing to a nearby hospital for doctors and patients, but the company eventually had to backtrack on its plans.
Even Baidu, the poster child of China’s self-driving ambitions, only gained lackluster support during the outbreak, deploying just two robots for sterilizing the campuses of two colleges in Wuhan, alongside dozens of others in Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. The company claimed one of its invested startups began delivering meals to medical staff in Beijing Haidian Hospital starting Feb. 14.
The industry also faces technological challenges. These vehicles currently face enormous limits in their abilities to operate under certain road and weather conditions. The unpredictable nature of traffic and pedestrians, especially when these vehicles attempt to navigate congested roads within residential communities, present significant challenges to wider adoption. A lack of road markings and bad weather further compound these difficulties.
As Bob Zhang, CTO and co-founder of ride-hailing company Didi, has previously made clear, self-driving technology has a long way to go before it can navigate a wide range of weather conditions safety.
Propelled by machine-learning algorithms and a package of hardware that includes various sensing technologies, a delivery service robot can be quite expensive, with prices starting at RMB 100,000 ($14,220). Fortunately, the cost has declined significantly over the past several years; in the early years of development, JD said in 2017, the outlay (in Chinese) could be as much as RMB 600,000 per robot.
This price tag contrasts sharply with the pay of delivery workers, which ranges from RMB 5,000 to RMB 8,000 per month, according to public information on Chinese job recruiting platforms.
Covid-19 has revealed the potential value that autonomous deliveries can play in emergency situations. As Chinese citizens avoided infection by engaging in voluntary isolation, legions of food and grocery delivery drivers became a lifeline, providing a fresh supply of food to millions around the country.
However, there were limits. Many migrant delivery workers had made their yearly trek across the country to their hometowns, leading to a dearth of drivers in major urban centers. With fewer drivers available, deliveries that usually took 30 minutes might now be completed in around two hours.
Costs also increased. In Shanghai, for example, Alibaba’s Hema supermarket charged an additional RMB 6 for deliveries that had previously been free of charge.
The coronavirus outbreak also led to fears over close contact with delivery drivers, who had the potential to unknowingly spread infection to an untold number of other people. In response, companies launched “contactless delivery,” in which orders were left at the entrance of apartment complexes. The model had already been in use at office buildings before the outbreak, but quickly became ubiquitous as the outbreak continued.
In Hubei, the center of the epidemic, the government placed restrictions on deliveries to limit people’s exposure to the disease. Residents in small towns had to contact their party committees to get fresh food and supplies.
Delivery robots could provide a solution to these problems, and are poised to play an important role in China’s logistics industry. In less than a decade, autonomous vehicles will deliver 80% of all goods, according to the research firm McKinsey. These vehicles could increase efficiency and cut expenses in an industry where last-mile deliveries can constitute up to 12% of costs.
Xia Huaxia, Meituan’s chief scientist, told TechNode last year that machines can also be used to complement the work of delivery people by taking night shifts or working during extreme weather conditions. If a delivery robot’s lifespan is more than three years, he said, the cost of the machine will be lower than the cost of human labor.
Observers expect China’s food-delivery market to explode in the next few years. Meituan, which employed 600,000 drivers as of late last year, predicts that its daily orders will increase by 200% per day. According to Xia, in the second half of 2019, the delivery giant completed 25 million orders every day.