Self-driving delivery vehicles as a service

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NEXT Future Transportation is a robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) startup focused on developing a modular autonomous vehicle fleet for parcel deliveries. NEXT was one of only two transportation startups (the other was Hyperloop One) to be selected among 2,500 applicants to participate in the first cohort of the Dubai Future Accelerator, which is a part of the Dubai Future Foundation. Executive vice president Sven Hackmann speaks to PPTI about the company’s latest prototype and plans for the market.

Why was NEXT formed in the first place?
Tommaso Gecchelin, chief technical officer and co-founder of NEXT, examined the increasing urban traffic congestion and pollution challenges and recognized the need for a radically different mobility and transportation approach.

NEXT’s intuitive modular mass-transportation and parcel-delivery system will optimize public transportation by dynamically redistributing passengers and goods within a connected fleet of pods. As a result, our system will contribute to reducing road congestion, pollution, commute time, traffic fatalities and cost.

Where are things up to? Who are you working with?
NEXT will remain in a semi-stealth mode until the company is ready to announce its initial commercial product. Therefore, most of our publicly shared information is intentionally limited.

NEXT is in the process of developing its second-generation ‘commercial prototype’ pod, which is tied to the vehicle homologation process. We are making great progress relative to integrating our various robotic solutions. Such solutions are part of our global intellectual property and patent portfolio. For example, we have the ability to autonomously shift parcels among pods within our connected fleet while driving.

Technology stack:
We are continuing to develop our technology stack and operating system in parallel with our hardware. NEXT’s operating system is designed to integrate into existing traffic management systems and support a wide range of services and solutions.

Business solutions:
NEXT is dedicating an equal amount of resources toward the development of its unique Transportation as a Service (TaaS) model.

Project development:
We are planning pilot projects with a small number of communities [to be announced]. Establishing a ‘living lab’ project in full alignment with government, community and industry ecosystem stakeholders is important to our long-term success.

We are currently focused on collaborative relationships with partners in emerging economies, where investments in tech-based innovation in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics and green energy will reshape the future of human society.

Is NEXT still a prototype or is available to buy?
Our solution is indeed still a prototype, which will soon be entering the homologation process. Think of NEXT’s solution as a platform. The iPhone of transportation, NEXT will deliver the basic vehicle and operating system platform [‘iPhone’], while the apps on top of the platform will be co-developed and co-owned. In fact, our platform has multiple associated paths, which we will announce over time.

Launching a vehicle company traditionally required a lot of capital, however, we are focused on economies of scope rather than economies of scale. NEXT is an asset-light company that will outsource most of its vehicle production to external contract manufacturers. Additionally, we intend to support smaller-scale vehicle assembly plants, which will foster economic development in the local communities that we’ll serve.

As part of NEXT’s TaaS offer, qualified customers will be able implement fleet solutions without having to purchase and own the assets.

NEXT also plans to offer various lease-based operational solutions, which will include fleet operations, management, monitoring, maintenance, insurance, and other relevant services.

We believe that our approach will be more attractive as compared with the traditional vehicle sales approach. Automation’s relevance is growing in significance due to the fragmentation of orders, multiplication of stock keeping units and reduction of investments required for warehouse automation. However, its cost remains prohibitive. Over time, increased productivity, the lengthening in the lifespan of solutions and the drop in our hardware prices will all favor the move toward robotization, while labor costs continue to rise.

How reliable is the technology? Does the vehicle need to be manned?
Our technology is undergoing constant testing in the setting of a controlled environment. NEXT’s approach differs from most autonomous vehicle companies in that it emphasizes the immediate benefits of modular autonomous driving. We publicly demonstrated our driverless vehicle capabilities, and we are making tremendous progress relative to advancing our capabilities. At the same time, we don’t believe that there will be broad acceptance of autonomous driving in the near future. There are still many legislative hurdles that need to be overcome in order for autonomous driving to reach scale. Consequently, we are initially focusing on semi-autonomous [driver-enabled] fleet projects. That approach will allow us to deploy commercial fleets on public roadways without delay. Meanwhile, the benefits our fully autonomous capabilities will be recognized immediately within controlled environments [on the grounds of logistics hubs, seaports, airports, corporate campuses, university campuses, private communities]. We’ll be able to scale up and down our fleets via the pods by connecting and disconnecting without a driver. Once several pods are connected as a fleet [driver in the front pod], the parcels within the individual pods can be reliably re-distributed while en-route to their individual destinations.

What makes it unique compared with other mobile automated locker solutions?
NEXT’s patented modular fleet in combination with its robotic and artificial intelligence capabilities sets it apart from any other automated locker solution – including stationary lockers, delivery droids, and e-shuttles.

Our AI supported operating system and robotic in-fleet redistribution capabilities provide far greater flexibility relative to delivery optimization. As a result, we will participate in a wide range of delivery types, including deferred, same day and instant.

We are developing a number of additional solutions, which we’ll roll out upon commercial launch. Such solutions may also include the deployment of delivery droid fleets – if and when such autonomous vehicles become relevant at scale.  At the same time, we are not focused on droid and/or drone delivery schemes at the moment.

What have been the biggest challenges to date?
NEXT is generally recognized as a vehicle hardware startup – not a robotics and AI company. We are introducing a completely new paradigm in final mile delivery by defining a new business model. We know that overall robotization-related gains will be significant enough to impact traditional business models and the logistics value chains. We initially sought support and collaboration from some of the leading global players; however, initially there was little interest. Established companies did not view NEXT as a genuine threat; however, we are excited about the number of established players that are reaching out to us with ideas for launching joint trial projects.

The above represents a common challenge that innovative startups often face. Today’s age of innovation is driven by the accelerating evolution of technology and data, which has fundamentally changed consumer behavior. As a result, legacy corporations are faced with unrelenting pressure to put innovation at the center of their business – however, they can’t. Publicly traded companies are structured to maximize efficiency, minimize variances and avoid experimentation. Because this is incompatible with a culture in which risk-taking is a prerequisite for success, NEXT has created a strategy that allows such companies to harness our entrepreneurial expertise and innovation.

An additional challenge, however, completely anticipated, relates to the vehicle classification – we are potentially a new type of classification, which is different from a car, van, truck or bus.

To read our article on the latest technologies being developed for the parcel locker market, click here.

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Dan originally joined Parcel and Postal Technology International in 2014 having spent the early years of his career in the recruitment industry. As online editor, he now produces daily content for the website and supports the editor with the publication of each exciting new issue. When he’s not reporting on the latest technological developments, Dan can be found on the golf course or apprehensively planning his next DIY project.

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