It looks like a cross between a frog and a Formula One race car — and it may be delivering parcels to shoppers autonomously in Surrey, on the outskirts of London, by the end of this year.

Kar-go, developed by UK startup The Academy of Robotics, is aiming to be Europe’s first roadworthy autonomous delivery vehicle. Founder William Sachiti says the self-driving electric vehicle will reduce the cost of “last-mile” deliveries by 90%.

“Self-driving vehicles will start in the delivery and goods sector,” he says. “Most of what you pay to have a parcel delivered now goes to that last mile of transport to your house. But with autonomous vehicles we can reduce the cost to just 1.2p a mile.”

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It may well be that deliveries will be our gateway to accepting self-driving cars. McKinsey, too, has forecast that more than 80% of parcels will be delivered autonomously in the next decade. 

Sachiti, a serial entrepreneur who has been working on the Kar-go project since 2016, unveiled the vehicle at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the UK earlier this month.

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The first green Kar-go car — which can carry 48 shoebox-sized packages at a time — will be operational by the end of the year, Sachiti says.

But despite the bold claims, this project reminds us just how difficult the road to automated cars has been — and still is.

For one thing, Kar-go has just the one car and needs to raise funding to build out the fleet. The company raised £300,000 in 2017 to allow it to build its first working model together with Pilgrim Motorsport, a company that makes replica classic sports cars in the UK. But it is just starting talks with investors to raise £2.5m to build another 10 cars.

Kar-go has bee manufactured by Pilgrim Motorsports
Karg-go has been manufactured by Pilgrim Motorsports, makers of replica classic cars

And the vehicle will not be driverless to start with. A safety driver will sit in the car, ready to take over if needed. Sachiti was hoping that the safety driver could be remotely located — something that UK law does allow —  but had to keep the driver in the car in the end to minimise the insurance risk to the underwriters.

The insurance question delayed the launch of the project, as did the fatality caused by an Uber test vehicle in 2018 in Arizona. Like most other autonomous car projects, the Kar-go developers spent months poring over the footage from the Uber crash to determine whether the problem was specific to Uber or endemic to all self-driving cars. Road tests were delayed in favour of more simulations.

Exactly when cars will be able to ditch the safety driver is hard to say. In a trial in Jonkoping in Sweden developer Einride can have a remote operator controlling up to 10 delivery trucks on the road. Sachiti is hoping that something similar might be possible in the UK by the end of the year, but the timing is not clear. And until the driver is out of the picture, it will be impossible to realise the cost savings that Sachiti is talking about.

Kar-go was launched at Goodwood
Kar-go was launched at Goodwood

There are a number of tests of autonomous vehicles on UK roads. Robot vehicles from startup Starship have been making deliveries in Milton Keynes since April 2018, but these travel on pavements like pedestrians, rather than on the roads. Milton Keynes is a relatively unique environment for the trials, as the centre of the town is designed with multiple over and underpasses, making it easy for a robot to navigate. But there are some questions over whether this experience would translate to other cities.

Driverless pods are in operation at Heathrow Airport — but these drive on rails. Many of the tests of autonomous cars in Coventry, Bristol and Greenwich been in pedestrianised zones. More extensive tests in a geofenced area of a city will be the next step, but cars with drivers will be banned from the area, so this will still not be not be a simulation of real traffic conditions.

In any case, the SMMT, the umbrella organisation for the UK motor industry, predicts that fully self-driving cars — with what is known as level 5 automation — won’t be introduced until 2035.  

So a future of robot-delivered parcels is coming. But not very fast.

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