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Meituan unveils driverless delivery platform amid craze for self-driving technology

Meituan delivery Photo: Handout

Meituan-Dianping, China's food review and delivery giant, has recently debuted its comprehensive autonomous delivery platform as part of efforts to apply the autonomous driving technology into the country's booming food delivery industry.

The autonomous delivery platform is open to all the developers across the globe, and has established broad cooperation with more than 20 partners including Tsinghua University, University of California and Beijing Innovation Center for Mobility Intelligence, said Meituan.

Leveraging the platform's advantages in data security, clouding computing and big data, Meituan and these partners will work on building autonomous delivery vehicles, which shuttle food from restaurants to customers.

"Technology challenges will exist in the development process of autonomous food delivery, with the biggest one being the efficient combination of technology, commercialization and user experience. [But] that is the reason why we want to build this [autonomous delivery] platform," said Wang Huiwen, co-founder and senior vice president of Meituan.

The unmanned delivery will be put into trial operation in 2018, and large-scale operation in certain areas is expected to commence in 2019.

According to Xia Huaxia, Meituan's scientist and head of its autonomous delivery division, the company's autonomous delivery service will be available in shopping malls, office buildings and residential communities in 2,800 cities. For a long time, the food delivery service will be offered by humans and autonomous vehicles, with the latter being more widely used at nighttime due to the less complicated road conditions, said Xia.

Xia also said that many of the delivery personnel would be re-tasked with operating the unmanned delivery platform and charging the autonomous vehicles when driverless vehicles are fully used for food delivery.

Since March, Meituan has been testing its autonomous delivery platform in Joy City Mall in Beijing's Chaoyang district, Lenovo's offices in Shenzhen and Songjiang University Town in Shanghai. In Joy City Mall, Meituan's autonomous vehicles pick up orders from restaurants and bring them to the destination points where delivery staff then take them to customers.

The ultimate goal of the platform is to allow meals to be delivered directly from restaurants to customers by autonomous vehicles.

Meituan, which is preparing for an initial public offering in Hong Kong, is now the on-demand food delivery leader in China, where it handles 21 million orders every day in 2,800 cities and counties.

Along with the launch of the autonomous delivery platform, Meituan also unveiled a small autonomous delivery transporter named the "Little Bag" and an autonomous concept car which is equipped with the Level 4 autonomy, which allows a car to be almost totally in control all the time without any human intervention.

The "Little Bag", which features autonomous route planning, is designed for indoor food delivery tasks, while the concept car, which adopts multi-sensor fusion schemes such as laser radar, ultrasonic wave and camera in order to autonomously run at a low speed on city roads, will be used for outdoor food delivery.

Meanwhile, Meituan's rivals are not sitting idly.

In May,, an Alibaba Group-owned food delivery service, was approved by the local authorities to launch drone-enabled food delivery service in Shanghai's Jinshan Development Park. The 17 food delivery routes in the development park connect more than 100 restaurants and shops with customers, with 3-4 unmanned aerial vehicles serving one route.

The food delivery is not fully autonomous as two delivery staff are still needed, with one responsible for loading food packages onto a drone at the starting point and the other unloading it at the destination point and then manually delivering it to customers. But the operation mode has helped save 20 minutes, compared with the past when customers in the development park normally had to wait for 30 minutes to get their takeaway meals.

In addition to food delivery, autonomous driving is also applied into public transportation. This summer, Baidu, a Chinese technology giant that operates the open-source Apollo self-driving platform, began the trial operation of an autonomous minibus based on the Level 4 autonomy in some cities such as Beijing and Shenzhen, making it the world's first company to achieve the commercialization of a self-driving vehicle.

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