Kar-go Tackles Autonomous Delivery

Kar-go Photo

Europe’s First Autonomous Delivery Vehicle Hits the Roads

On the streets of Hounslow in West London, UK, a green, futuristic-looking car named Kar-go is making a delivery—taking prescription medicines from a pharmacy to a nursing home. 

Besides its sci-fi look, this is no ordinary car. It is Europe’s first roadworthy autonomous delivery vehicle. Designed by the UK-based Academy of Robotics, its purpose is to help solve the “last mile” delivery problem of getting products and services to their final destination more quickly and cost effectively—a challenge project managers in the retail space have been trying to solve for many years.

“It's universally agreed that automating it is the right way to go,” said William Sachiti, founder of the Academy of Robotics, at the virtual launch of Kar-go’s maiden journey this November in London. 

“There are companies making these really cool knee-high robots. Personally I love these, but the problem is how do you scale them? How do you send these across the town? It becomes very expensive, very quickly,” said Sachiti. 

Although driverless vehicles have been used to transport materials in the mining sector on closed roads, their use on public highways for delivery purposes is a relatively a new concept. 

The journey to making a driverless car roadworthy

The car drives itself by using artificial intelligence (AI) based on advanced neural networks, which is a series of algorithms that recognize relationships between data and mimic the way the human brain works.

Sachiti has been working on the project ever since studying AI at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales, UK. He founded the Academy of Robotics in September 2016, following two years of background work.  

According to Sachiti, what set them apart from other projects in this domain was their focus on the software and coming up with algorithms that allow the car to navigate safely without access to GPS. 

His team first started the project by understanding how self-driving cars navigated unmarked roads in Wales and in environments that were not necessarily structured. They examined how that impacted the AI’s vehicle performance and then moved on to study how it handled complex urban structures.  

Now Kar-go is the first autonomous delivery vehicle to travel on roads in the UK. Although the car is currently being driven with a safety driver on board, Sachiti is exploring the option of someone controlling the vehicle remotely. The team has built a command hub, which monitors and examines what is happening around the car. 

“We can see what the car is doing,” Sachiti said. “Is the indicator on? Is there a crack on the road? Is the road wet? Is there a puddle? The car will tell you in real time all the things that are happening so we can log everything.” 

Driverless cars can help with pothole maintenance

To get to the roadworthy stage it has also been a collaborative effort with other organizations. The Academy of Robotics has been working with Eurovia UK, which is responsible for improving more than 50,000 kms (31,000-plus miles) of the UK’s highway network, and the UK’s Department of Transport Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV).

Through working with Eurovia UK, they discovered the AI in Kar-go could help them with their highway maintenance projects. 

Yogesh Patel, process and improvement director of Eurovia UK, said, “Currently, the traditional ways of monitoring the carriageway is perhaps a two-person driven inspection, recording the defect issues on the carriageway on a tablet. That's obviously costly, expensive and time consuming. 

“With the use of a computer vision-type system, we could survey a lot larger part of the network more frequently—and most importantly, guess early sights of potential issues so that they can be dealt with before they become a big problem.”

By using this system, Eurovia UK can help its clients understand what maintenance projects they need to focus on. For managers it means they can address issues in the infrastructure early instead of waiting for them to become more costly and disruptive to the traveling public. 

Eurovia UK also has plans to use the vehicle in their logistics operations to make sure they get equipment and materials to their people at the right place and time in the supply chain.

“That's going to need a huge rethinking of how we manage, maintain, operate and use the roads,” said Patel. 

Reducing the logistic challenges and costs of online deliveries

Kar-go potentially has many more uses than just transporting goods, but by solving the “last mile” delivery problem Sachiti expects to reduce the cost associated with this by 90%. Being an electric vehicle, it could also dramatically reduce the environmental impact of parcel deliveries.

At a time where retailers around the world have been ramping up their deliveries as COVID-19 causes more people to shop online, improving efficiencies of the last mile have been a top priority for project managers in the logistics sector.

Although we’re in the early days of autonomous vehicles on public roads, Sachiti believes they are the future and will be the next evolution for deliveries.

“If you look at cars, they started with these giant steam engine machines, then we eventually got seat belts, and then a few years later we got cars with cruise control,” Sachiti said. “Now it is cruise control with lane assistance and optical detection. The next stage is autonomy.” 

Digital Exclusive article developed for Project Management Institute, Inc. by Joanne Frearson. Frearson is a U.K.-based business reporter.

View More Digital Exclusives