Chinese autonomous vehicle start-up Neolix is looking to make a splash in China’s already overcrowded robovan market by introducing 10,000 of its self-driving microvans into action across the capital and other cities.
According to the Nikkei Asian Review, Neolix has already begun deploying its Level 4 autonomous microvans in Beijing and other Chinese cities as it looks to scale-up its entry into what some have projected to be a 3 trillion yuan ($628 billion) market.
China’s “last-mile” market already boasts some 40 million vehicles offering home delivery services, primarily utilising two- and three-wheel electric motorbikes.
“Operating 10,000 units will be an industry milestone and it is crucial [for us] to achieve it,” said Yu Enyuan, 45, Neolix’s founder and chief executive.
However, in order for Neolix to break through, several hurdles need to be cleared first before its microvans will be seen meandering Beijing’s city streets.
Currently, Neolix’s microvans have passed 500,000 kilometres of test runs and are currently deployed in gated theme parks around Beijing and 10 other Chinese cities where they are used as mobile convenience stores.
In order to take advantage these roaming, autonomous vending machines, consumers must stand in front of an approaching robovan to stop it. They can then purchase snack food using a touch panel on the vehicle and pay using a mobile phone by scanning a QR Code.
The hope, however, is obviously for these same microvans to be used for jobs such as surveillance and freight in enclosed environments – such as residential estates or warehouses.
Expanding beyond gated environments will take time. Currently, Neolix’s robovans are guided using LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to sense their surroundings.
They drive at a speed limit of 20km/h out of a maximum vehicle top speed of 50km/h, and run on swappable Panasonic battery cells which are capable of covering 110km per charge.
So far, Neolix has delivered 150 of its robovans and is hoping to sell a total of 1,000 in 2019.
However, despite the theoretical possibilities of these self-driving robovans the realistic implementation of them in the wild isstill a few years away.
One benefit Neolix will have is that regulators are likely to be less concerned with self-driving vehicles that don’t have human passengers.
That being said, Tu Le of Sino Auto Insights, an advisory firm in China that focuses on the automotive industry, is quoted by Nikkei as saying that it will be another three to five years before autonomous-driving vehicles account for any significant percentage of freight.
And yet, Yu Enyuan is still looking to expand Neolix beyond Chinese shores, hoping to expand through partnerships such as one recently made with Noon.com, an e-commerce company in the United Arab Emirates which will see the two companies partner on test runs with the hope of covering Abu Dhabi and Dubai’s own last-mile delivery needs.