The first autonomous delivery service in Palo Alto launched at Hassett ACE Hardware on Thursday.
The van, which is a partnership between the hardware store and autonomous-vehicle startup ThorDrive of Mountain View, will make deliveries to about 60 residents of senior-housing complex Channing House and the Palo Alto Fire Department during a monthlong pilot program, store president Eric Hassett said.
“It’s very exciting for us,” Hassett said at a morning kick-off event at the 875 Alma St. store. As a small, family-run business with online competition, the same-day delivery program is a new tool for getting products to customers’ doors in a competitive way, he said. The delivery service is also a natural extension of customers’ growing habits. Already, some people send Uber drivers to pick up merchandise, which is time-consuming and expensive, he said.
Having the delivery service would give seniors who don’t drive and people with disabilities access to the store. It would also help free up time for more important matters around the fire stations, he said.
“The firehouse is in here two to four times a week. They can call and we can run over there on a regular cadence,” he said. The store would also reduce packing and waste because in-person delivery will eliminate shipping services.
ThorDrive began developing its technology in 2010 and launched the first urban autonomous vehicle in Seoul, South Korea, where it has conducted numerous tests. The Silicon Valley company, founded in 2017, is a spinoff by the team that created the first version of the technology in Seoul.
ThorDrive founder Seung-Woo Seo said he lived in Palo Alto and attended Stanford University, so it was a logical place to launch the company’s products.
“As a researcher and Stanford graduate, I’m delighted to have the chance to make a contribution to the community and society using our technologies,” he said.
ThorDrive is focusing its development and products on commercial applications instead of consumer vehicles: delivery and cargo transport, perhaps even eventually using big rigs, Chief Operating Officer Farshid Arman said.
“We’re focusing on logistics. It’s a bigger market than people. But we still have to be just as safe,” he added.
The company is retrofitting cars with its technologies rather than developing new models. The small, red-and-white Ford Transit Connect cargo van that Hassett is using is also retrofitted with Lidar technology from San Jose-based Velodyne Lidar. The laser-and-radar system can track moving and stationary objects with the use of cameras and computer-generated imaging. Sophisticated mapping enables the van to understand the streets. The van can go around objects and brakes for darting vehicles and pedestrians. It knows all traffic laws and can deal with any surprises, company officials said.
The vehicles aren’t fully autonomous yet, Arman said. Technology in the vans for backing up, for example, still hasn’t been perfected due to a hardware issue, but the company’s retrofitted sedans have that capability. The vehicles still have a safety driver in the car at all times, he said. The vehicles have been tested on more than 40,000 miles, he added.
The company has a permit from the state Department of Motor Vehicles to operate its vehicles with a safety driver, but the cars could potentially become entirely autonomous within one to two years if approved by the DMV, Seo said.
Hassett said the delivery service could eventually expand to the family’s other stores, including locations in Belmont, Half Moon Bay, Redwood City and San Mateo. The vehicles would have to learn to negotiate rural areas in Half Moon Bay, however. One of the store’s biggest clients is a mushroom farm located down gravel roads and a poorly marked turnoff, he said.
Then there’s the matter of financial feasibility. The hardware store will need to look closely at its expenditures. For now, they are not being charged for using ThorDrive and customers don’t pay a delivery fee, he said.
Palo Alto Vice Mayor Eric Filseth, who spoke at the kickoff, said having the launch in Palo Alto is exciting. “Clearly, autonomous vehicles are going to be a revolution on transportation,” he said.