A little rain didn’t dampen ThorDrive, a self-driving car platform based in Seoul, from launching its self-driving delivery service.
Starting Thursday, driverless vans will drop off purchases from a hardware store in Silicon Valley — no human driver steering, accelerating, or braking required.
In a demo ride Thursday in the pouring rain, a small Ford van with ThorDrive branding and four Velodyne LiDAR sensors that use light to measure distance between objects, sensors, and cameras drove some passengers around downtown Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley.
A safety driver and operator in the front seat kept riders posted on what and why the car was doing what it was doing — but after Thursday’s launch ThorDrive won’t have to deal with pesky humans asking questions and judging how the car stops or slows down.
Instead, the focus will be on delivering orders from hardware store chain Ace Hardware, starting with the Hassett Hardware store in Palo Alto and a few of its big clients, like the local fire department and the Channing House retirement community.
The pilot will run for free for the next month, and the service plans to expand in 2019. The company tentatively plans to build out a separate delivery app for the vans to autonomously drop off orders. Pricing has yet to be worked out, but the hardware store currently doesn’t offer delivery services. With that in mind, the new delivery method needs to be factored into the business.
ThorDrive COO Farshid Arman said at the launch event that even if the vans are only delivering barbecue supplies or gardening mulch and equipment, “we still have to be just as safe.” Even if there aren’t any passengers inside the vehicle, the autonomous vans need to watch out for pedestrians, bicyclists, scooter riders, and other vehicles on the road.
In the backseat of the van with me was Velodyne president Mike Jellen and Palo Alto vice mayor Eric Filseth. Like me, they were impressed with the van’s ability to navigate through less-than-ideal driving conditions with steady rain, large puddles, debris strewn across streets, and pedestrians with umbrellas trying to get out of the wet.
As Jellen pointed out, because of the reliance on LiDAR instead of cameras, the rain didn’t pose much of a problem. Light could still emit from the devices and the rain didn’t obstruct its view of objects.
Only at one point did the driver need to intervene when on a narrow two-way street a car was double parked and eventually tried to back into an open space, right at the corner of the intersection. The human driver in the car in front of us had trouble with the scenario, so it wasn’t that embarrassing for the ThorDrive driver to overtake the automated system and move the car around, but it showed its limitations.
The self-driving skills are pretty rudimentary at this point — it can’t back up or really park itself yet — but it very accurately and carefully approached stop signs, left-hand turns, pedestrian crossings, and other commonplace driving scenarios. It was almost too safe, cautiously crossing intersections and stopping fully. At one point a light turned yellow and instead of speeding up to make it through, the van stopped, which was the right call, but not what anyone else would do.
Filseth told ThorDrive founder Seung-Woo Seo after the ride that the ride was “pretty impressive” and that the car mitigated a “blizzard of complicated situations.”
ThorDrive follows a trend from other car makers and autonomous vehicle companies: transporting things instead of people. Unlike Waymo and GM’s Cruise with their taxi service goals, it’s easier to get a delivery service off the ground. Several grocery delivery programs have kicked off this year. Walmart and Ford announced earlier this month that you can order Walmart products in the Miami area delivered in a self-driving Ford vehicle. Nuro and Kroger also partnered recently for a food delivery program, while AutoX also offers autonomous delivery in Silicon Valley from online grocer GrubMarket.
Ford says it will have a self-driving car service by 2021, but in the meantime is working on autonomous deliveries. Before the Walmart partnership, Ford was dropping off Domino’s pizza orders. Instead of driving people, delivery services are an easier way to show proof-of-concept for self-driving.
The ThorDrive COO said ThorDrive isn’t using delivery as a stepping stone to a passenger service. The company intends to stay in the commercial logistics business because of what he considers a “bigger market than [driving] people” and a growing demand for a last-mile solution to get online orders into people’s homes.
In Korea, the company is mulling a possible autonomous shuttle which would carry people — another more predictable, lower risk way to test and perfect self-driving systems.