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Ocado has sent a self-driving truck trundling through the backstreets of south-east London, as part of the UK’s first trial of autonomous grocery deliveries.

The TRL-led GATEway Project together with Ocado Technology (a division of Ocado, the world’s largest online-only supermarket) has completed the UK’s first trials of an autonomous vehicle around the Berkeley Homes, Royal Arsenal Riverside development in the Royal Borough of Greenwich. The real world trials see a self-driving delivery vehicle, called CargoPod, operating in a residential environment, delivering grocery orders to over one hundred customers. The customer is simply notified when the CargoPod is loaded up, from a “mobile warehouse” located around a mile from their home, and then again once it has reached their front door. They then press a button to unlock their box and collect their shopping bag. Ocado Technology is using the trials to explore the logistics and practicalities of deploying self-driving vehicles as part of the last mile offering for the Ocado Smart Platform, an end-to-end solution for providing bricks and mortar grocery retailers around the world with a shortcut for moving online.

CargoPod, developed by Oxbotica as part of the GATEway Project, is guided by their state-of-the-art autonomy software system Selenium, which enables real-time, accurate navigation, planning, perception in dynamic environments and is able to carry a total load of 128kg. The project,  funded by UK government and industry, aims to demonstrate the use of autonomous vehicles for ‘last mile’ deliveries and mobility, seamlessly connecting existing distribution and transport hubs with residential and commercial areas using zero emission, low noise transport systems. Two key attributes set Oxbotica’s software solution apart. First, it doesn’t necessitate building a whole new fleet. Assuming the right cameras, lasers, sensors and so forth are in place, Selenium can be uploaded into a standard vehicle and – theoretically – off it goes. Second, the system is self-learning, which means its performance can get better over some time.

The trial is run in partnership with ‘Digital Greenwich’, an initiative that has established Greenwich internationally as a flagship ‘smart city’, where new technologies are being developed and tested in real, complex urban environments. GATEway is one of several projects taking place in the UK Smart Mobility Living Lab at Greenwich – an open, real world, validated test environment for the evaluation of the next generation of connected and autonomous vehicles. The research findings will also help guide the wider roll out of autonomous vehicles which, in the future, may play an important role in cutting inner city congestion and air pollution; self-drive cars could lead to steadier traffic and less unnecessary acceleration, both of which will help reduce transport-related emissions.

If successful, the Ocado Smart Platform could prove crucial for the company, which was founded in April 2000 and has grown to a valuation of almost £2bn. It faces competition not only from established supermarkets in the UK, but also from US retail titan Amazon, which launched its own grocery delivery service in the UK in June 2016. This month, Amazon expanded its grocery portfolio by buying organic foods chain Whole Foods for $13.7bn (£10.7bn).

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