DHL aims for an autonomous future with a fleet of self-driving delivery vehicles

Deutsche Post DHL (DPDHL), the world’s largest delivery company, announced today at Nvidia’s GPU Technology Conference 2017 that it’s teaming up with the GPU manufacturer to bring autonomous delivery vehicles to the road in 2018. DPDHL is looking at sorting the “last mile” of delivery – where the biggest bottleneck to delivery speed exists.

Autonomous delivery vehicles isn’t a new concept. Amazon has been looking into delivery drones for years, and Starship Technologies is working on “ground drones” to replace people delivering goods. Where DHL’s efforts differ, it’s not setting up a new network for deliveries, nor is it altering how people receive their goods.

DHL is upgrading its fleet of 3,400 StreetScooter electric delivery vehicles with Nvidia’s latest autonomous Pegasus PX technology and ZF’s sensor array. By altering an existing fleet, DHL says it can make use of its current delivery networks to improve fleet efficiency and bring 24-hour, seven-days-a-week deliveries to consumers without disrupting their lives.

DHL says that these autonomous vehicles won’t be replacing existing drivers. Not only do all these vehicles need a human passenger to stay on the right side of the law, but they’re initially going to be helping drivers be more efficient in their deliveries. This means vans will follow drivers as they walk down the road delivering packages to each house. It’ll be able to drive around and wait on the other side of a block of flats so a driver can simply keep walking forward and through a building without having to return back to the car. It keeps the engine running, reducing power consumption for start/stop movement.

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In the future, these autonomous delivery vans will also sit alongside real drivers to help lighten their load. It allows DHL to widen its bottleneck at that “last mile” stage by putting more vehicles on the road without debilitating cost nor by putting strain on its existing drivers.

“The development of autonomous delivery vehicles demonstrates how AI and deep learning are also reshaping the commercial transportation industry,” explained Jensen Huang, Nvidia’s founder and CEO. “As online shopping continues to explode, and the shortage of truck drivers becomes more dire, AI-enabled vehicles will be key to providing last-mile delivery services.”

DHL is also making use of Nvidia’s deep-learning neural networks to train these cars in virtual spaces before they come onto real roads.

The vehicle unveiled at Nvidia GTC 2017 is still a prototype but the final version will be almost identical. The van uses six cameras, one radar and two lidar sensors to feed into Nvidia’s Drive PX platform and help it navigate our roads.

There’s no word on bringing this technology to the UK, or to DHL’s larger fleet, but there have already been movements in this area on British roads. In August the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) announced plans to test a number of driverless  “platoons”, with up to three semi-autonomous lorries travelling together in formation.

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