udelv to begin autonomous last-mile delivery pilot in Houston

A driver unloads goods from the udelv autonomous delivery vehicle. The truck, with an electric range of about 60 miles, will enter a pilot program with XL Parts in Houston. ( Photo: Udelv )

A driver unloads goods from the udelv autonomous delivery vehicle. The truck, with an electric range of about 60 miles, will enter a pilot program with XL Parts in Houston. (Photo: Udelv)

The success of electric and autonomous vehicles may rely not on the technologies themselves, but rather on the applications in which they are first used. Try to take an electric truck 500 miles across the country right now and it will fail. The technology can’t support that application yet, and the charging infrastructure is even further behind at this point. But, run that truck 50 miles in an urban environment, and you have a trial with potential for success. Successes are what builds future demand.

The same logic applies to autonomous vehicles. Run enough successful trials and the industry and public will begin to accept the technologies and view adoption more positively.

udelv, a startup vehicle maker, views this approach as the key to success, which is why Adriel Lubarsky, director of business development at the company, sees a new trial in Texas as a critical step in the company’s electric, autonomous vehicle development.

“We are all in agreement that autonomous vehicles are going to make a tremendous impact in the next 10 years,” he told FreightWaves.

udelv’s vehicle is capable of running 60 miles on a full charge and operates autonomously. Since its first-generation vehicle was introduced in January 2018, more than 1,000 deliveries have been made with it. The body features individualized compartments so orders can be loaded separately, ensuring that the end recipient can access only its order.

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The company, which expects to introduce a second-generation vehicle in a few weeks, just signed on with XL Parts, a leading automotive aftermarket parts distributor in Texas. The udelv vehicle, with a “safety” driver inside to monitor and take control if necessary, will operate along a dedicated route from an XL Parts distribution center, delivering products to two nearby Houston stores. It is a 25-mile route, Lubarsky said.

The agreement calls for up to 10 vehicles eventually and will begin in the first half of this year.

“In Houston alone, we deliver well over 10,000 automotive parts to professional automotive service and repair shops every day – and most of the time we do it in about 30 minutes,” Mike Odell, president/CEO of XL Parts and Marubeni Automotive Aftermarket Holdings, said in a statement. “To do that requires millions of parts in stock, precise timing, hundreds of vehicles, and a large investment in technology.

“To remain the leader in our markets we are constantly exploring the latest developments for our business and for our customers’ businesses,” he added. “This investment with udelv in autonomous delivery vehicles allows us to advance our business and to understand the future of our industry at the same time.”

Daniel Laury and Akshat Patel founded udelv in California in late 2016. They believe that to succeed in autonomous, last-mile delivery, the vehicles need to be designed for that application.

“We have really defined ‘it’,” Lubarsky said. “One of the big problems is ‘it’ has not been defined. When we started the company, we defined ‘it’ as last mile.”

udelv’s vehicle uses machine learning to map its routes, which can be preset. “Since it’s such a simple route, the mapping can happen in a few days,” Lubarsky added.

Because the udelv vehicle is capable of hauling up to 1,300 pounds, XL Parts will utilize the vehicles to restock stores. One of the pain points to autonomous vehicles and last mile is the delivery point, which involves multiple people that change constantly. The question becomes how will the people who interact with the vehicle know how to do so? In the XL Parts trial, there will be a driver in the vehicle as well as the same XL Parts staff interacting with it, so Udelv will get a true evaluation of the vehicle’s capabilities.

“It’s a super sandbox environment that already has a defined ecosystem,” Lubarsky said. “The same people will be loading and unloading every day.”

The key, Lubarsky said, is to begin a trial. “The most important thing is to get started,” he said. “How can I, as a business, adapt my operation [to the advantages autonomous vehicles can provide].”

XL Parts, Lubarsky added, determined that if they gave udelv a route for a vehicle to run, then it could develop processes to adapt its business to the vehicle’s capabilities.

The trial will run throughout the year.