How Oxbotica's Autonomous Van Will Make Groceries Awesome

The future looks good for autonomous groceries.


Oxbotica’s on a roll. In May, the Oxford, UK-based artificial intelligence firm announced plans to host to one of the most ambitious autonomous car tests ever as part of an industry consortium. Not content with putting regular cars on the road, this month Oxbotica announced further plans to test autonomous grocery deliveries. Soon, your weekly shop could come courtesy of a robot.

The company has teamed up with Ocado Technology, the tech division of Ocado, the world’s largest online-only supermarket. The pair have been testing grocery deliveries around the Berkeley Homes, Royal Arsenal Riverside development in the Greenwich borough of London. It’s hoped that the trial will help the pair understand how these technologies would work in the real world, providing lessons around logistics and software that could be applied in future partnerships.

It’s all part of the £8 million ($10.4 million) GATEway research project (GATE stands for Greenwich Automated Transport Environment), aimed at finding out more about how autonomous cars react to the real world. The project, headed by transport research firm TRL, has conducted a number of tests around Greenwich, but this new test with Ocado is the first time the project has trialed an autonomous delivery van.

“This trial with Ocado Technology provides an ideal platform to help us understand how and where these vehicles could best operate and whether people would accept, trust and like them as an automated delivery service in the city,” Simon Tong, principal research scientist at TRL and technical lead for the GATEway project, said in a statement. “We envisage that cities could benefit massively if deliveries could be made by quiet, zero emission, automated vehicles when congestion is minimal.”

At the center of the trials is the CargoPod, a vehicle designed to carry up to 128 kilogram (282 pounds) of groceries at once:

The CargoPod in action.


Although it’s capable of speeds of up to 25 miles per hour, the nature of the trial (a confined housing development) meant the car was limited to just 5 mph. As this is an early stage of the trial, the car also has a safety steward in the driving seat at all times.

Oxbotica is reusing many of the developments it has made in general purpose autonomous car software. The firm is gearing up to start 60-mile round trips with a fleet of autonomous cars moving between London and Oxford, and this grocery van uses the same Selenium software that will drive the general purpose fleet. For the purposes of the grocery trial, the company is also using a cloud-based system called Caesium used for order management:

Caesium screenshot.


During the trial, participants were invited to pick from one of three goodie bags, delivered free of charge to their home: “healthy treats,” “movie night snacks” or “indulgent goodies.” The car has several numbered lockers on the back. The customer is notified when the van’s outside, and all they have to do is step outside, push a button and collect their order.

Out for delivery.


But Oxbotica isn’t actually the first company to trial autonomous deliveries around Greenwich. Starship Technologies, which has developed a miniature robot designed to carry a single order, has been conducting tests at its headquarters in the same borough. Where Oxbotica is developing road vehicles, though, Starship’s bots trundle along the sidewalk.

“Road based autonomy is much harder, since we have to share the road with cars, buses, cyclists and pedestrians,” Graeme Smith, CEO of Oxbotica, tells Inverse. “One benefit of on-road delivery is that we could send a delivery truck from a warehouse direct to someone’s door, whereas a robot that could only travel on pavements would need to be dispatched locally and would be limited to small distances.”

The rear of the CargoPod.


The future looks bright for Oxbotica’s work. The GATEway project has the backing of Lord Borwick of Hawkshead, who sits on the House of Lords’ science and technology committee and has spoken before about vehicle automation. It’s also supported by InnovateUK, a government innovation agency that provides funding for future-facing projects.

“The GATEway project takes us another step closer to seeing self-driving vehicles on UK roads, and has the potential to reduce congestion in urban areas while reducing emissions,” Claire Perry, minister of state for climate change and industry, said in a statement. “Backed by government, this project firmly establishes the UK as a global centre for developing self-driving innovation.”

Related Tags