A lot of transportation in old sci-fi movies was pod-based. People would travel through futuristic cities in quiet, autonomous, sleek pods that picked them up and dropped them off. What those movies missed, and is now becoming a reality, are fleets of pods running around to bring us our packages, restaurant food and groceries.
That’s one vision of NEXT Future Transporation, which today announced its Modular Mobile Parcel Locker. While still in the experimental stage, NEXT has created a platform that combines robotic warehouses, logistics software and yes, traveling pods, to transform how people and goods get transported.
The best way to understand the process is to watch the video below, but basically, NEXT has created small pods that can be intelligently loaded by robots in a warehouse. These pods can connect (while moving!) to form what is essentially a long, moving train on wheels. The pods then break off to go make deliveries at specific locations. Once at its destination, the recipient would use their phone to unlock the pod and accept delivery.
NEXT showed off its pod-based transport in action back in February at The World Government Summit in Dubai. There it was demonstrated as a way for people to commute. Today’s announcement shows how NEXT is thinking of its platform for package (and food!) delivery.
When it comes to moving goods, the company refers to the pods as Modular Mobile Parcel Lockers, and they can be customized to meet specific retailer’s needs. One could have refrigerated compartments to keep groceries at the right temperature, or conversely hot ones if delivering pizzas or other cooked foods.
In order to overcome municipal safety concerns about self-driving vehicles and speed up adoption of its system, NEXT is actually not focusing on autonomous vehicles to start. The company’s pods can come with a human driver to comply with the evolving set of regulations as self-driving vehicles come to market.
NEXT is launching its Mobile Parcel Locker at a time when the roadways are seeing more hot pod action. Toyota announced its e-Palette concept at CES earlier this year, and while they don’t connect together like some cargo Voltron, e-Palettes are autonomous, customizeable pods that can be used to carry just about anything.
Both NEXT and Toyota are both eyeing 2020 as a timeframe for an actual launch. In the nearer term, Kroger and Nuro have started a pilot of grocery delivery via autonomous vehicle. The two are using regular cars right now, but Nuro makes its own autonomous pod that will be implemented soon. On a smaller scale, companies like Kiwi, Starship and Alibaba are all using small, autonomous robots for shorter range delivery of food and other items.
In other words, this is no longer science fiction. We need to start thinking about a future where autonomous pods big and small are scurrying around our streets, dropping off deliveries (and people) around the clock. It’s going to change how we eat, how we move about our cities, how we interact with retail and how we interact with one another.