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The Automated Nano-Hub Could Solve the Last 50 Feet Delivery Challenge

Sam Abuelsamid
Nov 07, 2023

Delivery van full of cardboard boxes being unloaded outside a building by a person with a dolly

During a recent trip to South Korea to speak at a mobility conference and visit with an automated driving systems developer, I had some fascinating conversations with Jeroen Beukers. Beukers works with TPG, the Geneva Public Transport operator in Switzerland. TPG has been running a fleet of four Navya automated shuttles since 2016, but the agency is getting ready for a new phase in its deployment of automated vehicles (AVs) starting in 2025. Beukers’ visit to South Korea was part of his scouting for a new technical partner to scale up Geneva’s automated public transport system.

Part of what is driving the shift to automation is a shortage of bus drivers and a desire to reduce the number of private vehicles operating in Geneva. The average age of bus drivers in Europe is already 50 and climbing, as younger people aren’t interested in the job. Providing public transport access to more people in lower density areas will require more but smaller vehicles, which makes the driver shortage even more critical.

While Navya has been a good partner for TPG, the low speed electric shuttles it produces are not up to the task of the expanded service, which includes operations in outlying areas of the canton of Geneva at higher speeds. Based on the experience TPG has gained since 2016, the 11-passenger shuttles are too large; TPG wants 6-passenger vehicles for optimal utilization, with a speed of up to 60 km per hour. The vehicles also need to be usable by people in wheelchairs.

However, demand for passenger transport is not consistent during the course of a day, with peaks in the morning and afternoon commute hours. In order to make the service economically viable, the vehicles need to be used all day, so Beukers wants something that can be utilized for goods delivery as well. While many companies—including Waymo, Cruise, Motional, and the now defunct Argo—have done extensive testing of using their AVs for last-mile delivery, the last 50 feet remains a challenge. Without a driver on board to take packages from the vehicle to the doorstep, someone must be present to receive a delivery from an AV.

Enter Beukers’ idea of a nano-hub. Cruise has showcased a locker module, similar to the Amazon lockers that can be found around most cities, which can be inserted into the center of the Origin robotaxi. But as mentioned above, someone needs to be present to take a delivery out of a locker. The concept of the nano-hub is that the locker module itself is automated, exiting the delivery AV to be left on the sidewalk outside an apartment or other location. After the drop-off, the AV goes on to deliver other nano-hubs or passengers. Order recipients could then go to the nearby nano-hub, pick up their packages, and go home. When all of the orders have been retrieved, another AV could come around to pick up the nano-hub to be refilled and dropped off somewhere else.

Doing this would require a ramp on the AV, but that could also be used by wheelchair passengers. Something like the BrightDrop Trace electric cart could be adapted to serve precisely this purpose. Another use case could be for service personnel like plumbers and electricians to ride along in the AV with an electric cart that contains their tools and parts.

The combination of electric AVs that can carry both passengers and something like a nano-hub could do a lot to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, reduce emissions, and make mobility accessible to all in a more cost effective way. It’s time for automakers and automated driving developers to step up and produce vehicles of this type, because if Geneva wants them, a lot of other cities probably will as well.