Amazon’s ground-based autonomous delivery vehicle, dubbed Scout, will now begin showing up to homes in the Irvine, California area as its testing territory expands beyond the vicinity of Amazon’s Washington headquarters. The company first began to deploy the robots, roughly the size of the average cooler, back in January, and the company is now ready to move forward with testing. This expansion is the first major venture outside of home turf for Scout, and if it’s a success, a nationwide deployment may not be far behind.
These small robots move at about the same pace as the average person walking, and currently functioning much like tiny self-driving cars, albeit on the sidewalk. Using a sort of gestalt AI wherein each unit trains together and shares knowledge, akin to Waymo’s fleet of Chrysler Pacificas, the Scouts are learning to surmount challenges like trash cans, pedestrians, dogs, rough sidewalks, and more. For the time being, however, they have to be accompanied by an Amazon employee. Because of all these complications, the little bots will only be punching the clock and hitting the streets from Monday to Friday, and only in daylight. That will almost certainly change in the future, should tests continue to go well.
Amazon Scout’s initial January rollout in Snohomish County, Washington included only six devices and delivered out to a single neighborhood. This test will expand upon that one in more ways than just where it’s all happening, though Amazon has not given any exact details on just how many Irvine residents can expect autonomously delivered packages or how many coolers-on-wheels will be cruising local sidewalks. What Amazon did say, however, is that this new testing ground will have the same options as the last one, which include free same-day, one-day, and two-day delivery for Prime members. That almost certainly means that fleet numbers have increased, which in turn means that Amazon is probably ready to produce the little bots at scale for a national deployment.
Amazon has been grappling hard with what’s known in logistics jargon as ‘last mile’, which is exactly what it sounds like. Planes, trucks, trains, and more can get things from where they’re made to within a couple miles of most customers, but from there, things are normally taken care of by Amazon employees or contractors driving around in private vehicles or the iconic navy-colored Amazon vans. The company has been taking great pains to eliminate those roles, along with all of the issues, limitations and overhead that come with them.
Scout is an alternative to an autonomous delivery drone program that Amazon has long been toying with, a program that the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration did not seem to like very much. While having your Prime purchases take to the skies to reach you cheaper and faster than a human could accomplish is promising, it’s also an extremely complicated way of doing things that’s going to have a lot of red tape to sort through before it can roll out formally, despite getting green lights for limited testing in the US and elsewhere.
Scout, being ground-based and far less dangerous, is easier to roll out and expand. Essentially, once Amazon has finished setting the stage for the little bots and testing them in limited locations, a nationwide rollout could happen in a matter of months, or even weeks. Drones, meanwhile, would require cutting through red tape at the national, state, county, and even city levels in some cases, which would take months or even years for certain areas. Amazon’s intentions with Scout are obvious, but only time will tell if the diminutive automatons can actually challenge Amazon’s fleet of human drivers for that coveted ‘last mile’ crown.