The race to build autonomous delivery robots rolls on

It’s been a busy year in delivery robot land.

Starship Technologies sounded the starting gun to bring autonomous delivery vehicles to market with a $17.2 million round led by Daimler back in January 2017. Then in January this year the Mountain View, Calif.-based company Nuro raised the curtain on its own vision for robo-delivery with a whopping $92 million in funding. Meanwhile, upstart Robomart has its own notion for delivery vehicles that it unveiled at CES. And not to be outdone, everyone’s favorite Chinese retail powerhouse, Alibaba, announced its own self-driving delivery vehicle.

Now there’s Boxbot, the still-stealthy startup developing autonomous delivery somethings, which has picked up new cash as the race to build delivery bots rolls on.

Boxbot is a latecomer in the field. The Oakland-based company boasts impressive pedigrees from its founders — former Tesla engineer Austin Oehlerking and Mark Godwin, an entrepreneur who was working on improving logistics services through machine learning before he was acqui-hired by Uber.

As part of the new $7.5 million round, which was led by Artiman Ventures with participation from Toyota AI Ventures, Boxbot’s bulking up its executive team. The company poached Steve Sanchez from Amazon Logistics, where he was working on Amazon FlexAmazon’s crowdsourced delivery service.

The investment is also the first in an autonomous delivery company for Toyota AI Ventures, and one of at least five the firm has made since its launch in 2017.

For the last few years, automakers have spent several millions launching investment funds to tap startup expertise around technologies of autonomous vehicles.

In January, Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi launched the $1 billion Alliance Ventures fund to invest in new automotive technologies. The firm has made $50 million in commitments already to the Sinovation Ventures fund in China and the Maniv Mobility investment fund — focused on mobility — in Israel. Volvo has its own Cars Tech Fund, to invest in startups focused on new mobility technology, and BMW is investing $500 million in autonomous vehicles through its iVentures fund.

These commitments are part of a broader acknowledgement from the world’s biggest automakers that their industry is changing faster than their internal research and development teams can address.

The delivery dilemma

Delivery is emerging as a crucial service in the new world of autonomous mobility. From the dream of autonomous long-haul trucking to last mile delivery to personal transportation, companies are scrambling to develop new technology. McKinsey predicts that autonomous vehicles will make up 85 percent of last-mile deliveries by 2025. That’s a huge slice of a massive market that Toyota AI Ventures managing director Jim Adler called “a global problem that McKinsey & Company priced at more than $80 billion in 2016.”

With a market that large, there’s no wonder it’s so tantalizing a problem for automakers of all stripes to try and solve.

“Over the next few years, self-driving vehicles will transform the last-mile, making it cheaper to make deliveries and easier to receive them,” said Brian Wilcove, a partner at Artiman Ventures and investor in Boxbot.

And Toyota’s Adler sees Boxbot as an extension of the technologies that have solved the problem of autonomy inside warehouses at companies like Amazon.

“Logistics automation within warehouses has made remarkable progress in the last decade due to advances in robotics and automated interfaces that streamline interactions between human and supply chains. An inflection point came in 2012 when Amazon bought Kiva which put them on a path to automate their fulfillment centers,” Adler wrote in a blog post. “The same autonomous technologies (i.e., sensors, perception, prediction, planning) used to pack boxes in the warehouse are now being pressed into the service of delivering those packages that last mile to your door — the most complex and expensive leg of the supply chain.”