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Meituan-Dianping eyes burgeoning autonomous tech sector

By CHENG YU | China Daily | Updated: 2018-10-02 12:23
Customers drink coffee delivered by Meituan-Dianping's autonomous driving car in Xiongan New Area in northern China's Hebei province on Sept 7. [Photo/China Daily]

Online food apps are changing everyday life for Zhou Huan, a 25-year-old worker from Beijing, as all her meals can be brought by deliverymen no matter where she is.

But recently she was even more pleased when an unmanned vehicle delivered her meal directly to a shopping mall in Beijing.

"You know what? I was so surprised when a robot approached me and said clearly that the food had arrived," Zhou said.

The intelligent machine was developed by Meituan-Dianping, China's largest on-demand service provider, to offer customers unmanned online delivery services.

It is also indicative of the country's digital transformation. Major tech companies in the country including Baidu Inc, JD and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd have all found themselves in a good position to develop autonomous deliveries to back up their businesses.

Together, they are driving a burgeoning online food delivery market in China where a total of 300 million customers like Zhou order food online through popular apps.

Meituan-Dianping, a group buying and dining platform with 320 million active users and more than 4 million merchants, started trial operations of autonomous deliveries in the shopping mall, office building and university campus last year.

The company's autonomous delivery car is able to ferry food such as drinks, fruit and snacks from a local store to the residents. Embedded with leading camera, radar and GPS technologies, it can also avoid cars and passers-by automatically.

Recently, it also launched its autonomous delivery service in Xiongan New Area, as part of its broader efforts to accelerate the application and commercialization of unmanned technologies.

"We will implement autonomous delivery not only between buildings but also within buildings by the end of this year in some areas in Xiongan," said Xia Huaxia, head of autonomous delivery at Meituan-Dianping.

By then, delivery cars will be able travel up and down in building elevators, without anyone having to push the elevator buttons for them, he said.

Xia agreed that its service would continue to rely on its delivery staff to some extent for quite some time into the foreseeable future.

"Currently, autonomous vehicles will act as a supplement to our delivery staff, especially for late-night deliveries, as unmanned vehicles can work round-the-clock," he added.

Wang Xing, CEO of Meituan-Dianping, noted that the Beijing-based company will promote large-scale operation of autonomous delivery vehicles by 2019.

An industry analyst pointed out that the autonomous delivery industry is promising since the national online delivery market is huge.

The size of the Chinese online delivery market exceeded 297 billion yuan ($46.5 billion) last year, which represented an annual growth of more than 65 percent and is expected to exceed 360 billion yuan this year, said an industry report.

"As such, major internet companies are scrambling to tap into autonomous delivery to bolster their competitiveness to gain a lead," said Yang Xu, a life and services analyst at consultancy Analysys.

"Emerging technologies including unmanned delivery will be the core engine driving its businesses in the future," he added.

However, Yang noted that the commercialization of autonomous delivery remains a long way off and still faces some challenges.

Before this can be achieved, a number of problems including complicated road conditions, technological bottlenecks, operating costs and supervision need to be dealt with, said Yang, adding that related rules and regulations have yet to be issued.

"Autonomous delivery is never easy. We will continue to join forces with different partners to jointly develop technologies needed for unmanned delivery vehicles," said Wang Huiwen, co-founder and senior deputy president of Meituan-Dianping.

"We hope to accelerate the rollout of unmanned delivery in the country in the near future," she said.

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