There are few things more irritating, as a consumer, than being told that a package you’ve ordered will arrive at some point between 9 am and 9 pm. Regular activity becomes a juggling act as you try, usually in vain, to be instantly available should your phone or doorbell ring.
It’s not much easier for the service provider. As more and people order online, increasingly with the expectation of same-day or next-day delivery, billions of additional packages enter the system every year. “And that means more misdeliveries and stolen packages, as well as rising costs for shippers,” comments Austin Oehlerking.
He is one of the co-founders of Boxbot, a new tech startup founded in 2016 that aims to revolutionise the last mile of package delivery. It’s here that prices are the highest, as delivery navigates through apartment complexes, congestion charges, toll roads and enthusiastic guard dogs. The small but rapidly expanding company—led by executives who had spent time at Uber and Tesla—is focusing on the power of automation to cut costs, improve efficiency and make the service more reliable.
In short, it wants to remove problems facing the consumer and make delivery a painless, profitable process.
The Boxbot system works with a fleet of blue and orange electric trucks, most of which are self-driving. Each vehicle can hold 63 cubic feet of packages, which can be added to the truck in any combination through a modular system.
Customers are able to order a package and have it delivered either same day or next day, and, crucially, be advised of a one-hour delivery window. When the Boxbot truck arrives, customers approach the vehicle and tap a personalised code onto an iPad-style screen on the side, which forces a compartment to pop open. This same technology can be used to return packages.
The key? Automation. At the delivery hub, packages are sorted and loaded automatically onto vehicles before a route is automatically planned to make the journey as efficient as possible. “Boxbot drivers can get more done in less time, without worrying about loading, organising or finding packages in their vehicles,” a promotional video explains.
The company is currently delivering packages on behalf of OnTrac for one postal area in Oakland, but the 30-person team, backed by $9 million in funding, has a strong desire to expand and reach new areas.
Mark Godwin, Boxbot’s other co-founder, is clear that the whole postal process—including navigating garden gates and dropping packages in a secure place outside people’s doors—is currently too complex to be left to robots alone. Speaking to Wired, he said: “That last 50 feet is not going to be automated for a very long time. Definitely not in the next five years, probably not in the next 10.
“Even 20 years from now, human beings will be involved in the process. They’ll just be significantly more productive.”