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Driverless trucks on the way

By He Wei in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2018-01-24 09:49

Trucks driving themselves out of warehouses and heading off along long, winding highways with precious parcels-a scenario that might come sooner than many people expect.

Cainiao Network Technology Co Ltd, the logistics affiliate of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd, is hiring 30 autonomous driving experts at its Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, headquarters and Beijing office, the latest indication of the company betting big in this area. The posts include research and development personnel specializing in visual systems, navigation algorithms and platform development, according to Alibaba's recruitment website.

Cainiao confirmed a social media post, in which an unnamed Cainiao engineer identified driverless trucks as the company's "next frontier" and the very reason he joined Cainiao.

"Without a doubt, autonomous driving will first gain a foothold in the logistics area, because the economies of scale would help to lower labor costs in several years," said the engineer on Zhihu, a Quora-like knowledge-sharing forum in China.

The application scenarios are also relatively simple, according to the Cainiao engineer, given that trucks are either cruising down freeways or serving as point-to-point, last-mile delivery, reducing risks and uncertainties.

"We can confirm that the post and the hiring plans are both true," said a text reply from the company's public relations team, without elaborating.

The firm's automation ambitions first came to light last year, including the launch of a robotics filter center in Guangdong province and the enlistment of an army of car-shaped robots for last-mile deliveries.

China's explosive e-commerce market and increasing labor costs are forcing logistics service providers to look for alternative approaches, said Charlie Dai, principal analyst at consultancy Forrester.

"While the advent of the self-driving car will rest on the decisions of individual consumers, logistics companies will upgrade their fleets the moment it makes financial sense," said Neil Wang, president of Frost & Sullivan Greater China.

Long-distance goods transport could be a common application of autonomous driving, because the "platooning" of trucks can help the rear vehicle brake and accelerate in line with the truck in front, eliminating the need for drivers in the whole fleet and therefore trimming total costs, according to Philipp Kampshoff, a partner at global consultancy McKinsey.

But companies vying for dominance should first iron out several technological glitches, such as ensuring better internet of things support for goods monitoring, as well as more responsive and proactive mechanisms for vehicle control and navigation, said Dai from Forrester.

Tesla Inc unveiled an electric semi-truck last year. Uber Technologies Inc, Volkswagen AG, Nvidia Corp and Baidu Inc have all pledged to put self-driving cars, including trucks, on the road.

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