Lots of big tech companies and automotive manufacturers are investing money and effort into autonomous vehicles, but none could be as influential and disruptive than the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon.
Here’s what we know
Amazon have invested so much of their income into R&D and service expansion over the past 20 years they generally don’t turn a profit. That’s not because they don’t make lots of money, it’s simply because the volume of money poured into their own technology and infrastructure would make the leaders of a medium-sized country jealous. In fact, if Amazon were a country, it would have a larger turnover than 50 of the world’s poorest countries combined!
Amazon have a huge customer base (some 300 million), all needing deliveries at high speed. Where countries have not had their own robust delivery networks and companies, Amazon have put in their own.
Amazon have already experimented with aerial drones, both openly and covertly, and committed to bringing this service to its primary markets working in conjunction with the relevant governments and authorities with a delivery time of around 40 minutes after ordering. They’ve also begun a formal partnership with Ford, which owns dozens of driverless vehicles and will, by the end of this year, be integrating its Echo and Alexa devices with three of Ford’s production vehicles. That said, they also expect to be connecting to BMW and Hyundai cars as well…
Amazon also have an army of sensor technologists, software engineers as well as deep and machine learning experts, and is recruiting more than 500 more for their secretive globe-spanning research and development subsidiary, Amazon 126. As we know, these are exactly the types of skills needed in developing autonomous vehicles, or at the very least, widening the connection between Amazon customers and driverless vehicles.
Logistics and distribution
As well as billions of data points on logistical networks and customer behaviour built up over 20 years of operation, Amazon also have dozens of data centres around the world and the ability to scale systems very quickly – in fact their systems are already in use for 3rd party apps and services used in driverless vehicles.
Amazon have decentralised distribution systems – huge central warehouses matched with regional distribution centres, ideal for speeding up delivery of the most popular items by 3rd party delivery companies, and later drones and driverless vehicles for what’s referred to as the ‘last mile’ of delivery.
The company has recently launched a key service which is a strong indicator that it’s on the cards. Amazon Flex is an app-controlled courier system. Just launched in the UK, Amazon is recruiting thousands of part-time drivers (ring any bells… Uber, anyone?) with a simple mission of carrying out deliveries from their local depots, directed and controlled by apps on their phones.
Fact is stranger than fiction
Accelerated further by the launch of the Amazon Dash Button (a single item ordering gadget for <24 hour delivery), ever increasing subscriptions to the delivery-speed orientated Amazon Prime (helped in no-small part by the imminent global launch of The Grand Tour), we feel that it's really a matter of 'when', rather than 'if' Amazon start looking into this.
Even the often-anarchic 4chan online community recently let out a fun but (we feel) oddly prophetic hoax story that Amazon was trialling Amazon Prime X – with a promised delivery time of 10 minutes. And we all know that truth can be much stranger than fiction.
Where will this happen?
While the UK’s airspace is tightly regulated and commercial operations are typically a matter of public record (not ideal for private technology research and development), the British government’s attitude to technology R&D (which benefit from generous grants and tax breaks) and use of driverless cars even on the road is much more open. The population density and more advanced technology in use in Europe (especially in the UK) mean that nationwide roll-outs are far easier.
While this geographical opportunity conflicts with Amazon’s own capabilities (the bulk of its R&D is in California), it does make the privacy associated with R&D far easier to achieve, and the logistical and technological backbone much simpler to integrate. The moment anyone gets a driverless permit in the USA, they are subjected to publicity, and scrutiny, and the geographical scale of America and its archaic logistical infrastructure mean that Amazon would be faced with a very public and uphill battle to deliver a nationally available ground-based drone delivery service.
When will it happen?
While only meaning this blog as a light-hearted prediction, in fact we’ll stick our neck out a little here and say that Amazon will the dabbling in running public trials of driverless vehicles for deliveries within the next 2 years, we hope you’ll agree there are some very interesting breadcrumbs on this particular trail and it’s a story that will certainly be worth following.