By Akshay Asija
Autonomous vehicles are Silicon Valley’s latest obsession. Many companies, ranging from minuscule start-ups to technology giants like Alphabet, have teams of engineers using intelligent sensing technologies and deep learning to build driverless cars and more. From a business standpoint, this is a smart move, considering that automated vehicles can potentially disrupt several industries at once. This clearly seems to be the motive behind Robomart, the “world’s first self-driving store”.
Robomart – The Company
Robomart is the brainchild of Ali Ahmed, who previously founded Lutebox (a London based Social Media start-up) and Dispatch (a now-defunct concierge service). Ahmed first conceptualised a moving grocery store during his stint at Unilever in London more than a decade ago. It was in 2017 that his idea materialised as Robomart, in Santa Clara, California. He feels that Robomart is the start of a new category of businesses. While on the surface it appears that the start-up wants to compete with conventional neighbourhood grocery stores, Ahmed says that his intention with Robomart is quite the opposite of that. He says that the businesses that license Robomart’s platform will be given full access to the data the vans collect about customers. This data, he feels, will be instrumental in these businesses’ growth.
What is Robomart?
Robomart is a company offering an on-demand grocery delivery service, much like BigBasket. However, Robomart’s deliveries are facilitated by self-driving vans that run on electricity. The company previewed this technology last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Robomart is one of the start-ups being supported by chipmaker NVIDIA through its “Deep Learning/AI Inception” Program. The company has leveraged NVIDIA’s expertise, such as GPU tools and deep learning technology, to develop a self-driving store on wheels. The store, which is in a concept stage at present, consists of a specially designed minivan that is equipped with a Laser Imaging, Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) array, and a radar. A network of sophisticated cameras, along with a motion-control system based on the Controller Area Network (CAN) is also present. All of this intricate hardware is linked together and employed using complex route-planning and obstacle-avoidance software. The result is that Robomart’s vans are Level 5 autonomous, which is the highest level of autonomy achievable by a self-driving vehicle. A Robomart van can, thus, navigate on its own, without any human intervention. The company aims to launch a pilot program of its service in San Francisco’s Bay Area in the following months, once it receives its Autonomous Vehicle Testing Permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
How does Robomart work?
Like most services these days, Robomart is also accessible primarily by means of an app. Consumers will have to request a Robomart van (typically one that is the closest to them) through the app, similar to a ridesharing service. Once the van arrives at the specified location, they can unlock its doors, and pick up the required products. The cargo area of the van is refrigerated and stocks various kinds of products and fresh produce. When the consumers are done shopping, they simply close the doors and the van proceeds to its next destination. Like Amazon Go, Robomart keeps a track of the items picked up by the customers using a proprietary checkout free technology and accordingly bills them and generates e-receipts.
Robomart’s vans have fully electric drivetrains that have a range of about 80 miles on a single charge. These vehicles have a top speed of 25 mph and make use of a wireless charging system developed by HEVO Power. Since these vans are intended to drive through city traffic with several stops, these figures are very much acceptable. Robomart intends to license its vans to exist grocery businesses on a 24-month basis. These businesses will be responsible for maintaining and using these vans for delivering their goods to consumers.
The future of self-driving vehicles
Dara Khosrowshahi, the CEO of Uber, recently said that true self-driving vehicles are at least a decade away. While many experts agree with him, the potential benefits of autonomous vehicles are too significant to be neglected. They are the reason why companies are secretly building and testing autonomous systems (Apple) or are engaging in bitter legal battles over classified research information pertaining to self-sufficient driving platforms (Waymo vs. Uber). As the race to building the perfect self-driving platform heats up, one can only expect more services like Robomart and Kiwi (a delivery robot start-up) to spring up.
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