In the future, certain autonomous vehicle manufacturers might cut the passenger out of the equation, at least to some extent. A clutch of companies large and small are currently developing crafts that will devote some or all of their running times to the transport of cargo.
Exhibit A is an early-stage, Silicon Valley-based company called Nuro. The vehicle Nuro developed, the R-1, is an electric vehicle roughly the length and height of a family saloon but has around half the width. The interior holds no seats or any kind of creature comfort because it wasn’t made for creatures; it’ll be occupied purely by cargo.
It’s only the first light of dawn for the R-1 and for Nuro. As of this writing, the company had apparently still not developed a business model, or a manufacturing partner, to build the vehicle. When contacted by TU-Automotive, a Nuro official said that they were “not available for interviews at this time”.
Nuro is a small guy trying to find its niche. Of course, it’s not the only company giving a thought to cargo operations. Uber is now shifting goods around autonomously through its Uber Freight service. The company took a big step in the direction of autonomy earlier this year with some of its runs in Arizona – the portion of the journey that takes place on certain highways in the state is done in a self-driving Uber truck.
According to Uber spokeswoman Sarah Abboud, safety is as much of a reason to go driverless with cargo as it is with flesh-and-blood passengers. “While trucks drive just 5.6% of all US miles, they’re at fault for nearly 9.5% of all driving fatalities,” she says. “Although large trucks make up 1% of vehicles on the road, they create a disproportionate percentage of road-based pollution. By using technology, in particular self-driving technology, we can help solve these problems.”
Perhaps the future of autonomous cargo isn’t limited to dedicated small craft or big rigs. Some believe that shipping goods can be part of a broader, modular or systemic solution. Shortly after New Year’s 2018, with the usual fanfare Toyota president Akio Toyoda unveiled its e-Palette concept at the CES show in Las Vegas. These concept cars are not unlike Nuro’s prototype, in that they’re effectively skinny pods on wheels. Toyota plans to manufacture them in three sizes, with lengths ranging from around 4 metres to 7 metres. The difference with e-Palette is that it’s envisioned as more of a multi-functional utility than a standalone, single-purpose vehicle.
Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said: “We believe a single e-Palette unit can be used in a relay-like fashion by different companies… and optimally dispatched in line with an operation timetable. For example, an e-Palette could be used in a ride-share service in the morning for commuting to work or school, and then be used again in the afternoon in a mobile office service.” Toyota is going the collaboration route with e-Palette. According to the company, it’s already signed up several service providers for its e-Palette Alliance, listing Amazon, Mazda, Chinese ride-sharing company DiDi, the ever-present Uber and even Pizza Hut as partners.
The Alliance will further develop the concept using the auto maker’s Toyota Mobility Services Platform as a technological foundation. Cargo will certainly receive a lot of consideration in this project. “Yes, we do imagine a cargo-only application.” Lyons said. “That’s why we partnered with Amazon. Since they are logistics experts, we feel the expertise will help us design a platform (hardware and software) suitable for their needs.”
Another conceptual project riding the modular road is Next Future Transportation, a small Italian start-up. Next’s vision of autonomy is a flat-sided transparent pod shaped like a parallelogram, slightly bigger in profile than a Smart Car, and powered by electricity. The pod can zoom around on its own – according to the company, it holds six people seated, and four standing – or be combined with other pods on the fly, for a variety of uses. This could result in some very clever applications; imagine, for instance, arriving home on an airplane flight, transferring to a ride-share pod to whisk you home, and in mid-journey being connected to another pod transporting your luggage. Or having a restaurant delivery service dispatch a meal directly to your vehicle, making a long road trip infinitely more endurable.
The concept is the brainchild of engineer and industrial designer Tommaso Gecchelin, who says that it’s perfect for cargo-only uses. “In our solution the modularity guarantees that you can always have the vehicles’ assembly suitable for your cargo needs, to carry the things you need just if/when you need them,” he said.
These early efforts and concepts are intriguing. It’s a question of whether the modular idea or the dedicated-use concept will prevail. That is, of course, assuming that one wins out over the other. After all, there’s a lot of cargo to haul throughout the world; maybe there will be as many varieties of cargo vehicles in the future as there are passenger automobiles at present.