Human technology

Pandemic prompts Chinese tech giants to roll out more email bots


  • Alibaba, Meituan and JD.com to operate more than 2,000 bots by 2022
  • Leaders say they are encouraged by falling costs and pandemic
  • Robot deliveries are safer, but less efficient – consumers

BEIJING, Sept.28 (Reuters) – More than a thousand robots are expected to join the delivery staff of Chinese giants Alibaba (9988.HK), Meituan (3690.HK) and JD.com (9618.HK) during of the next year. as the pandemic fuels demand for contactless services.

Companies expect to operate more than 2,000 robots between them by 2022, about four times more than now, their executives said, also encouraged by falling robot manufacturing costs.

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Millions of couriers still deliver packages for less than 3 yuan ($ 0.47) in China, but companies have explored the use of drones or box-shaped wheeled robots as early as 2013 amid labor shortages. -work which has worsened due to the pandemic. .

Beijing has also ordered companies to provide rest periods for couriers as they scramble to meet increasing demand and deadlines.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a big boost” for robot deployment plans, said Xia Huaxia, chief scientist at Meituan.

The food delivery giant launched its robot service in February 2020 when infections were high in Beijing, ahead of a planned launch later this year.

JD.com has also announced plans to launch its robot service, said Kong Qi, chief scientist of the e-commerce giant’s autonomous driving unit. It had targeted a June 2020 launch in Beijing, but started using the service in Wuhan in February when the central Chinese city was on lockdown.

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“We want people and vehicles to work better together, not vehicles to replace people. It’s just the most boring part of the delivery guy’s job that we’re going to try to replace,” he said.

LIMITS VS BENEFITS

Still, human delivery people outnumber robots, which have limitations such as the inability to climb stairs. Additionally, robots are only allowed on certain routes such as on subdivisions and school campuses due to speed limits and road conditions.

A Meituan autonomous delivery vehicle is on display at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC) in Shanghai, China on July 8, 2021. REUTERS / Yilei Sun

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Robots also tend to be used to deliver less urgent products like packaging, rather than food.

“Efficiency is low for offices where people order a lot of food and parcels but the capacity of the vehicle is limited,” said Zhang Ji, 25, as she picked up a parcel delivered by an autonomous vehicle near his office in Beijing. .

But proponents are espousing the long-term benefits of robots, such as lower last mile delivery costs. Researchers at the University of Michigan said that fully and partially automated vehicles could reduce delivery costs by 10 to 40 percent in cities.

Alibaba’s last mile logistics vehicle delivered more than one million orders in September to more than 200,000 consumers, the company said. It operates more than 200 robots and plans to have 1,000 by March and 10,000 over the next three years.

THE COSTS ARE DOWN

Robot manufacturing costs are falling, said Wang Gang, vice president of Alibaba who is in charge of autonomous driving, mainly due to falling prices for lidar sensors that help measure distances and render the images around the vehicles.

Alibaba and JD.com said the cost of manufacturing their robots was less than 250,000 yuan ($ 38,662) each and that it was going down.

JD.com, which operates around 200 robots, plans to expand to around 1,000 units by the end of 2021.

Meituan estimates the cost of manufacturing its robots at around 400,000 yuan this year, up from 600,000 yuan in 2020, Xia said.

Meituan’s robot will cost less than 200,000 yuan in 2025, when the industry will see the massive application of more than 10,000 units of these robots, Xia said.

Meituan currently has around 100 delivery robots.

Delivery companies in other countries have also tested robots. Russian company Yandex (YNDX.O) and online food ordering company GrubHub are planning to start using driverless robots to deliver food to US college campuses. Read more

“I hope robots can be widely used soon because it will make our life more convenient … it will also reduce face to face contact during the pandemic so that we can be safer,” said Pan Hongju, 28. programmer in Beijing.

($ 1 = 6.4662 Chinese yuan)

Reporting by Yilei Sun, Yingzhi Yang, Sophie Yu and Brenda Goh; Editing by Himani Sarkar

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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