January 14, 2017


According to a recent press release Mercedes-Benz Vans (MBV) has invested in Starship Technologies, a start-up focused on the development of ground-based, autonomous delivery robots (AGV's). As lead investor, Mercedes-Benz Vans is participating in the 16.5 million euro financing round. The two companies already introduced the so-called "mothership concept" back in September 2016. The concept combines the advantages of a van with those of an autonomous delivery robot. A Sprinter presented as a prototype serves as a mobile loading and transport hub for eight robots.

According to MBV, thanks to the intelligent interlinking of delivery processes, it will play a part in significantly improving the efficiency of last-mile delivery logistics in future. The mothership concept is the first outcome of a research and development cooperation between Mercedes-Benz Vans and Starship Technologies that began in 2016. Through its financial commitment to Starship Technologies, Mercedes-Benz Vans is now reinforcing this strategic, long-term collaboration.

"The robot can only travel short distances under its own power and until now has had to return to the warehouse to be reloaded after each delivery. On the one hand, the introduction of the van as a mobile hub widens the operational radius of the robots significantly, while also rendering superfluous the cost-intensive construction and operation of decentralised warehouses. We see the combination of these two technologies as an opportunity to give our van customers access to some completely new services and business models. At the same time, we make the delivery process much more convenient for the end customer", says Volker Mornhinweg, Head of Mercedes-Benz Vans. "For example, the concept makes it much easier to deliver goods to the end customer on time."

The aim is to develop the concept systematically over the coming months. Following pilot testing of the delivery robots, which has been and continues to be undertaken by Starship Technologies with other partners, the plan is to begin widespread testing of the joint concept with one or several logistics partners. The launch of the pilot project in a real-world environment is scheduled to take place later this year.

Mercedes-Benz Vans unveiled its strategic future initiative adVANce last September. The business division is systematically directing its focus at new, quickly changing customer needs, with a particular eye to identifying innovative solutions. The company will invest some 500 million euros in the advancement of digitisation, automation and robotics in vans as well as in innovative mobility offerings until 2020.

Interesting news, but what's the low down on this decision? Well, from my perspective it is right that MBV is looking at AGV's, as they can potentially help with a number of issues, including: courier shortages (see my post on "staffing the last mile") as well as improving the carbon footprint in cities.

For now, as noted in my earlier post (Man,Van & Robot , making the last mile?), this all sounds great...but there are, I believe, still a few questions to be asked. Here are some:

What happens if somebody trips over a robot and is seriously injured? What if a car hits the robot on a zebra crossing, because the driver didn't see it? What if some value added services are needed that are currently provided by a human (carry in, ID check, cash on delivery etc.)? A bit extreme, but what happens if terrorists get to a Robovan and release eight robot driven bombs? Maybe I'm expecting too much but, as I assume that the customer still has to "meet the robot on his doorstep" and physically remove the parcel and if the consignee's not at home, there is still a failed delivery. Also, while the robot is automated, the van still needs a 'human' driver, for now. Finally, is there really room for the 400 packages....with much of the van taken up by the robots & machinery?

Notwithstanding the above, Even if there is still some way to go in perfecting the system, Mercedes are right to be in the Vanguard here as they will, doubtless have an advantage in terms of any final, commercially viable solutions. Any views?