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Covid-19 Drives Demand Growth For Autonomous Delivery Vehicle Technology

Covid-19 Drives Demand Growth For Autonomous Delivery Vehicle Technology
The outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic has created a shift in the self driving car industry in the world with companies developing autonomous vehicles now focusing on delivery of packages instead of people. And the more established companies have seemingly got a head start compared to startups in this segment primarily because of access to funds.
"The reality right now is that goods delivery is a bigger market than moving people," John Krafcik, chief executive officer of self-driving technology company Waymo, said in a n interview to Reuters in early May.
Right at the beginning of its formation the focus of Waymo, a unit of Google’s parent Alphabet, was in the development of autonomous taxis.  It has also been engaged in the development of autonomous trucks and delivery vehicles while inking out partnerships with the likes of UPS and Walmart on automated delivery pilots. The company has christened its delivery operation as Waymo Via.
After expanding its first round of funding from outside investors and managed to raise $750 million in mid-May, Waymo now has $3 billion in fresh capital.
According to reports, at least $6 billion into more than two dozen companies that are engaged in development of autonomous delivery of goods and food has been invested over the past seven months. The delivery modes range from drones to heavy trucks.
Big and late-stage companies such as Waymo and Didi Chuxing that are developing both automated ride and delivery services have been the receivers of the majority of that investment – at about more than $4 billion, since January.
While a lot has been written about automated sidewalk delivery robots, projects related to it have revealed very little investment in recent times even as these projects are being tried out by more and more cities and companies.
According to Reuters, as soon as the novel coronavirus pandemic hit the city, Christopher Bruno, head of the Fairfax, Virginia, economic development office, started attempting to put Starship sidewalk robots on the streets of the city.
"I think without a crisis, there would have been some scepticism as to whether this would have been used or not,” Bruno said in an interview to Reuters. He said that while it usually takes between six to 10 months for a formal approval for new businesses, "we did it in a week and a half”. Now meals, groceries, and hair products are being delivered by 20 robots in Fairfax.
Companies that combine hardware and software into a "full stack" and those startups that are engaged in the development of heavy truck automation are being favored by early-stage investors.
$215 million was raised in September by the autonomous trucking company TuSimple, which claimed to have UPS as an investor, which pushed the valuation of the company to over $1.2 billion. The company is planning a new round of fundraising this year.
However, expectations around automated delivery an industry that still is plagued with technical and regulatory issues, is being inflated by the importance that it is being given due to the pandemic, cautioned some investors.
"While there’s increased hype around automated delivery right now due to coronavirus, this health crisis will be mostly resolved in a few years from now before automated on-road delivery is ready for mass adoption,” said Quin Garcia, managing director of Autotech Ventures, an early investor in Lyft. The investments by the company is focused more on autonomous vehicles used in warehouses and on private land for farming and mining.

Christopher J. Mitchell

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