Ford Wants to Use Human-Like Robots to Help Self-Driving Cars Make Autonomous Deliveries

The robots, which easily fold up and fit in the trunk of the delivery vehicle, can carry packages up to 40 pounds and walk like a real person.

Ford and Agility Robotics
Ford

Ford wants to use self-driving cars as delivery vehicles, but that presents a problem: how do the packages get from the car to the customer's door? The Blue Oval believes the solution may be to equip autonomous delivery vehicles with robots, and it's teaming up with Agility Robotics to test the concept.

Agility Robotics has developed a small bipedal robot called Digit, which could be the key to making autonomous delivery vehicles feasible, Ford explained in a blog post. In future delivery services, autonomous cars could do the driving while robots could carry packages the last few steps to a customer's door, Ford believes. 

Digit can lift objects weighing up to 40 pounds, walk up and down stairs, and maintain its balance over uneven surfaces or when bumped into, according to Ford. In other words, it walks just like a human.

The robot can easily fold up to fit into the back of an autonomous delivery vehicle, unfolding itself and grabbing a package when it's time to make a delivery. Digit is equipped with lidar and stereo cameras to "see" its environment, but it can also rely on the delivery vehicle to help it navigate. A self-driving car can send information on the best path to a customer's front door to the robot. If Digit encounters an unexpected obstacle, it can send an image back to the car, which can use its sensors, stored digital maps, and even the cloud to help the robot navigate around it.

Ford, which has said it will launch a production self-driving car with no manual controls in 2021, believes autonomous vehicles will initially be used by commercial fleets, not private owners. It's targeting delivery services and ride-hailing as the first uses for autonomous cars. Ford claims autonomous delivery vehicles could help address the growth in package deliveries created by online shopping, noting that the United States Postal Service delivered double the volume of packages in 2018 as it did 10 years ago. The Postal Service is itself investigating autonomous vehicles, both to haul mail between distribution centers and for local deliveries.

Ford isn't the only company working on autonomous delivery vehicles. Rival General Motors' Cruise division plans to use its prototype self-driving cars to deliver food for DoorDash, while startup Nuro is already delivering groceries for supermarket chain Kroger. Delivery services give companies a way to get self-driving cars on the road without having to convince a skeptical public to ride in them. That gives companies a chance to continue developing the technology, and prove to people that it works, while still making money.