The startup Quadrobot Inc. will be rolling out its robotic mail delivery trucks in Detroit, Mich., and China later this year. The QUADROBOT U1 is a four-wheel-drive, autonomous, all-electric vehicle designed for urban environments and neighborhoods to provide “last-mile” delivery service.
Bill Visnic, editorial director of the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Autonomous Vehicle Engineering magazine, explains, “Last mile solutions are particularly critical for urban areas, where traffic congestion makes this type of service increasingly time- and labor-intensive.” Designated a UP (urban parcel) vehicle by Quadrobot, the U1 is extremely maneuverable with each wheel capable of operating independently, providing four-wheel steering.
Visnic adds, “Last-mile service is expected to be a viable early laboratory for automated vehicles because these trips will often be on defined and easily mapped routes. There’s also potential for increased efficiency from autonomous delivery and ride-hailing, which at least in theory might help to reduce congestion.” Increasing the utility of the vehicle will be enabled by the modular two-part construction of the U1. The same four-wheel chassis can have many other shell types mounted onto its bed, including passenger cabs, food wagons, mobile libraries, etc.
The CEO of Quadrobot, Inc, Mike Tianye Wang, emphasizes the importance of the flexible design of the U1: “Through QUADROBOT’s reinventing of electric vehicles, its products become an important infrastructure for the smart city of the future, the carrier of human, material, information and capital flows, not just the traditional means of transportation.”
Wang, a native of Hangzhou, China, came to study at the College for Creative Studies, a world-renowned school for auto and industrial design in Detroit. Working with local engineers, he and his team completed the design and engineering details for the U1 in Michigan and now have advance orders for 2,000 vehicles from an undisclosed Chinese company. Assembly facilities in China will employ about 200 workers, and the showplace where the vehicle was displayed to the local press in February 2019 will need 50 assembly workers at the Industrial Park in Madison Heights, Mich.
DESIGN AND TECH
The U1 is a modular vehicle composed of a chassis and above that a body with cab and storage space. The two sections are assembled using techniques that avoid massive assembly-line equipment, and then, according to Quadrobot, they are locked together, LEGO-like. Chassis components are riveted not welded, and bolts and glue are used for assembly and easy replacement of components.
The drive module includes the power system, steering and control systems, and the chassis subframe, all forming independent product models that can be customized and sold separately for different uses.
For the 2019 rollout of the company’s urban parcel vehicle, the U1 will be connected to the Internet, but there will be controls, a seat, and a large windshield for a driver. The driver will be monitored by the autonomous system that can take over braking and steering if the human operator makes a dangerous mistake, or even if he gets lost.
One amusing feature of the U1-human attendant model involves the deliveries. The attendant will take care of package deliveries and pick-ups, but the vehicle will autonomously follow him or her down the street, around corners, and even around a parking lot. Wang says, “It’s like a pet following you.” Wang also suggests that the U1 could be used as a mobile locker for customers to drop off objects for pick-up.
On the Quadrobot website, the CFO, Jim Cook, offered his views on the UP’s Detroit roots and the choice of technologies: “QUADROBOT is not born to overtake or copy or displace any existing automotive brands. QUADROBOT is rooted in the basic dictates of satisfying people’s core needs for the receipt of their goods. Although we are electric, we are not governed by any fads for ‘Electric or Connected Vehicles’ nor ‘Intelligent or Autonomous Vehicles,’ per se. Rather, we gather our inspiration from Henry Ford’s Model T and Steve Jobs’ iPhone, both of which solved multiple profound challenges beyond expectations and ultimately transformed people’s lives for the better.”
With the Amazon experiment with drone box-droppers seemingly on hold, the U1 is an interesting alternative. As the company begins collecting data from vehicles running their routes, the information perhaps can make a contribution to the knowledge base needed toward the making of smart cities.