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  • By John R. Quain

The Week in Autonomy: Big Deals from BMW, Daimler, and FedEx

BMW i8 Roadster

Daimler, the parent of Mercedes-Benz, and BMW agreed to work together on an autonomous vehicle platform this week. It was a sign of not only the growing realization that making such vehicles is going to be more challenging than previously thought, but also of the tremendous capital investment it's going to require to get there.

Both companies have already conducted a lot of research going into the deal. Daimler has been testing autonomous trucks on the road for years, adding advanced ADAS features, and launching electric semi tractor trailer testing on U.S. roads this year (I drove one). Mercedes-Benz has been offering advanced ADAS features for years, as well. And BMW has been pushing in-cabin technologies like gesture recognition, ADAS options, as well as working with systems like remote-control parking for years. The companies hope to have semi-autonomous and autonomous technologies available by the mid-2020s (again, recognizing that this is not going to happen overnight).

These are also two of the most resilient and experienced engineering companies in the automotive business and both have been looking for/working with partners for years. Consider BMW's work with Intel (which owns Mobileye) on a open autonomous car platform, as well as working with Bosch to make advanced assistance systems practical. Normally, these are all competing companies--but today, everyone has to work with everyone.

And BMW and Daimler have already announced they will be combining resources in the so-called "mobility services" space, a phrase that in the transportation business roughly translates into, "we don't have a flipping clue what is going to happen in the future or if people will buy or need cars so we're trying everything we can think of." So the two companies will be spending a combined $1 billion in areas ranging from car-sharing services to electric vehicle charging systems to multimodal transport (planes, trains, and automobiles--and e-bikes).

Meanwhile, back on the robo deliver front, which has pretty much been a research fantasy out of Silent Running until now, FedEx announced it would start testing electric SameDay Bot delivery systems in Memphis, Tennessee, this summer.

What makes this more significant than, say, Amazon testing sidewalk robots or tests on college campuses, is that it involves FedEx--one of the world's pre-eminent delivery companies--and Dean Kamen's iBot Personal Mobility Device. Kamen's motorized wheelchair technology has been used for years; it can climb stairs and deal with uneven terrain--the kinds of skills needed for door-to-door delivery. FedEx knows logistics. Indeed, in many ways, if it weren't for FedEx (and UPS), there wouldn't be an Amazon.

FedEx also seems to understand the challenges, outfitting the new bot with lidar, radar, and video cameras to assist in navigation. The bots will also be controlled by remote human operators when needed. And, yes, in case you wondering, pizza delivery from Pizza Hut will be one of the early test projects.

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