Postal robots take to the streets with backing from Toyota AI Ventures

Out of stealth, a new concept in last-mile delivery brings more than autonomous vehicles to the table.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

A secretive autonomous delivery startup with some big backer bona fides has just come out of stealth. Boxbot, a California delivery logistics startup, recently unveiled its autonomous last-mile delivery system, which consists of an autonomous local logistics hub paired with a robotic delivery truck.

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The unveiling comes just weeks after USPS announced its own pilot to test self-driving trucks for interstate delivery, helping to solidify the idea that autonomous delivery is a foregone conclusion.

Last year, Boxbot, based in Oakland and founded by ex-Uber and Tesla engineers, raised $7.5 million in a seed round that included investment from Toyota AI Ventures, the AI-focused venture subsidiary of the robotics-happy Toyota Research Institute.

But little was known about what Boxbot was developing. In a last-mile delivery sector fueled by large partnerships and boisterous announcements about miles driven, the company has been something of a black box. By contrast, last-mile autonomous delivery technology from startups like Marble, Robby, and Starship Technologies is a common sight on Bay Area streets and in the tech press.

Boxbot's unveiling makes one thing clear: The company is thinking more holistically about last-mile delivery than many of its competitors, and it's also taking bigger bets. Boxbot's fleet includes self-driving electric vehicles that look a bit like a lego creation. It's a testament to just how quickly we've become attuned to autonomous driving that the self-driving vans are actually the least novel-seeming part of the unveiling.

The Boxbot logistics system also includes an automated local hub where packages are received, sorted, and prepped for delivery, along with a fleet of street-based driverless vehicles. Boxbot envisions the hubs situated close to residential neighborhoods. By shipping products to them in anticipation of orders, retailers can conceivably offer fast, low-cost shipping for a fraction of the price, cutting into Amazon's massive lead.

The concept isn't new. Micro-fulfillment is being explored by a number of companies, such as CommonSense Robotics, as a way to cut costs while increasing shipping times. What is new is that Boxbot also makes the last-mile delivery vehicles, providing an end-to-end last mile solution.

"Automation is transforming virtually every aspect of the way packages are shipped and delivered to the end customer," said Mark Godwin, Boxbot's co-founder and CTO. "But the final step, when packages move from the hub to consumers' doorsteps, is still an entirely manual process. With Boxbot, automation is coming—finally—to the last mile."

But building automated last-mile logistics centers near residential neighborhoods will also require a significant capital outlay. Where Starship Technologies can offer a la carte as-a-service delivery for mom and pops, Boxbot's model seems to need some serious momentum to get off the ground.

On that front, the company has scored one big win in its new partnership with OnTrac, one of the country's largest parcel logistics companies. OnTrac will test Boxbot's logistics solution in California. Boxbot has been working with OnTrac to test its technology and identify new ways it can tightly integrate within OnTrac delivery infrastructure.

As part of the expanded partnership, Boxbot is now operating as a Regional Service Provider for OnTrac, handling last-mile deliveries select northern California neighborhoods.

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