Going the Last Mile

Magna’s full-vehicle expertise, systems savvy, and start-up mindset are opening new mobility markets — with extra pepperoni.

Pizza, anyone? Magna New Mobility’s delivery ‘bot development team at the company’s Vehma prototype facility in Troy, Michigan. (Waterhouse Photography)

Pizza is a subject that puts a smile on most faces but for Matteo Del Sorbo, the delight extends far beyond the actual pie.

Magna engineers disclosed a few of the delivery ‘bot’s technical details. (Magna)

“We’re having a lot of fun with this program!” exclaimed Del Sorbo, the executive VP at Magna International and global lead for the Tier 1’s New Mobility enterprise, in an interview with SAE Media. “It’s demonstrating our ability to innovate and move fast. And it’s opening another new market that we very much want to play in.”

That market is end-to-end “last-mile” delivery services, a subset of the fast-growing micro-mobility transportation sector. For their entrée into the last-mile fray, Magna engineers developed a compact, autonomous three-wheeled electric vehicle — a “’bot” — and its full software stack, purpose built for urban delivery service on public roads. Pizza and related fare were the cargo of choice for the boxy little ‘bot’s first iteration.

Magna New Mobility boss Matteo Del Sorbo: The ‘bot program demonstrates the company’s ability to innovate and move quickly while opening a new market. (Lindsay Brooke)

One pilot vehicle, equipped with a Magna-developed low speed (up to 20 mph/32 km/h) autonomous driving system and delivery software, has been in regular service by Brooklyn Pizza, in Birmingham, Michigan, since March 2022. The vehicle’s operational design domain (ODD) is within a geofenced 8-mile (21 km2) radius. The pizza shop’s owner Sam Abdelfatah is anxious to put a second ‘bot into service

Speaking with SAE Media, he praised the AV’s functionality and reliability, ensuring the pies are hot and the drinks cold upon arrival. In fact, Abdelfatah claims that the ‘bot-delivered pies are hotter than those delivered in a traditional pizza-delivery bag.

As of early October, the Brooklyn ‘bot had delivered hundreds of pizzas in single-customer runs, rather than optimal multiple deliveries per run that will come as the control software is refined. If there has been any impediment, it’s been gawkers in cars who block traffic to photograph the ‘bot on the road. Abdelfatah said his restaurant’s customers and other local businesses are enthusiastic about the Magna machines.

“Technology like this is a good thing for the entire community,” he asserted. As winter arrives, he’s hopeful for continued reliable service. Magna’s development team expects to collect a trove of cold-weather use-case data, including that from end customers. “The design intent is all-weather capability,” noted Adam Naish, director of Magna Engineering, corporate R&D.

Autonomous delivery vehicles are predicted to generate about $670 million in global revenues by 2030 - up from $70 million in 2022 — according to ABI Research. One prominent maker of delivery ‘bots, Starship Technologies, reported that its global sales tripled in 2021. Engineered in Estonia, the company’s product has some 300 bots operating in Britain, making about 1,000 deliveries daily.

Senior program engineers Muthu Subramanian (left) at Adam Naish with a ‘bot that has actually delivered pizzas. (Lindsay Brooke)

Challenges abound, not only in creating robust, practical ‘bots but also in the overall logistics matrix. Last-mile delivery is the most expensive factor in the end-to-end delivery equation, according to supply chain experts. The total cost of shipping for the last mile of any delivery is reportedly 53% of the total delivery cost. On-time delivery is the price of admission in this hyper-competitive field. Rural and urban areas present unique hurdles. In the busy urban downtown where Brooklyn Pizza operates, the time savings that come with closer customer proximity is typically neutralized by traffic congestion and continuous delays.

Bot learnings

Cargo-access protocols already are being revised, but the ‘bot’s operator is satisfied with performance to date. (Lindsay Brooke)

Muthu Subramanian, senior director of advanced engineering for Magna R&D, said the delivery AV was developed entirely in-house by the Magna’s New Mobility team in Troy, Michigan. He said its sensor suite includes a radar, Magna-manufactured cameras, and a low-cost lidar, without providing detail. “We monitor the vehicle remotely by camera at this stage of development,” Subramanian noted. And each delivery run has been shadowed by a human driver, typical of how many last-mile AV developers are handling their early pilot operations before ramping into full autonomy.

The bot architecture is flexible, to fit a range of business models and duty cycles, he explained. It’s also robust: Hardware and algorithms are all automotive grade. The tricycle layout was chosen as a cost saver and for maneuverability but has less inherent stability than a four-wheel chassis. Weight is thus biased toward the front axle. Batteries are mounted in trays in the rear of the vehicle.

At Magna’s Vehma International prototype shop in Troy, the author watched an engineer open the vehicle’s rear panel, grab a handle on each of the battery packs (themselves slightly larger than a ream of paper), and effortlessly slide the packs out of the vehicle. “The batteries are designed to be easily swappable, if the operator desires that capability. Brooklyn [Pizza] hasn’t done that yet,” Subramanian said.

The ’bots constantly generate and broadcast data in real time. “We are in the process of validating our design assumptions,” he explained. “We’ve identified things to change, such as eventually consolidating info into a single gateway module.” Based on the pizza runs in Birmingham and simulation, the team is confident that the ‘bots can cover 80% of urban environments at 20 mph.

Pizza customers are issued a digital ‘ticket’ when they order, which is used to plot the delivery route and maintain communication (order status and estimated arrival time) with the customer. The delivery program also generates a 4-digit access code, which the customer taps into a keypad on the side of the ‘bot. The body sides open to access the food order within.

“In the future, we’ll likely have NFC integration [near-field communication, a short-range wireless technology] or a QR code to quickly enable access to the load within,” he noted.

Adding AV muscle

The Magna ‘bot on its way to another Brooklyn Pizza delivery in Birmingham, Mich. (Magna)

While Magna has long held the title of world’s largest automotive contract manufacturer (and currently ranks No. 4 on Automotive News’ Top 100 Global Suppliers list), its status as a major technology company that’s well positioned for the “new mobility ”— electrification, assisted and autonomous driving—demands equal billing. While the company continues to support the ICE and hybrid-based vehicle platforms that funding EV development across the industry, its experience in systems integration, electronics and sensors, propulsion (along with timely acquisitions and being ahead of the lightweighting and electrification curves) has enabled the company to pivot naturally into advanced tech such as ADAS, AVs and artificial intelligence.

"For this [last-mile ‘bot] program, we’re leveraging a number of technologies that we’ve developed internally. We’ll prove them out in this application, refine them, then begin to scale for production in a variety of volume applications,” Del Sorbo said without offering a timeframe.

For the past six years Magna has partnered with OEMs and leading tech companies to develop and manufacture systems with SAE Level 3 and 4 self-driving capability. The relationships, involving sensor integration, software, and complete systems, include a triumvirate with BMW and Intel Corp., as well as autonomous shuttle developer May Mobility. A much-publicized partnership with ride-hailing giant Lyft seemed to be an ideal collaboration in the eyes of some industry observers, but it proved overly ambitious, given the near-term technology challenges facing true self-driving capability. Magna still works with Lyft but on a reduced scale.

In May 2022 Magna announced a partnership with Blackberry BB to develop next-generation ADAS solutions for automotive OEMs. Magna currently leverages Blackberry’s various QNX software platforms for many design engineering, systems integration, validation and performance optimization roles.

Contract ‘botmaking

Meantime, the company continues to enhance its attractiveness to engineering talent, particularly in the electronics and software spaces that are vital to Del Sorbo’s New Mobility group goals. In early 2022 Magna added more than 100 engineers and other technical experts at Optimus Ride, a Boston-based ADAS specialist that it acquired in January. Also in 2022 came Magna’s $77 million investment in Yulu, India’s micro-mobility giant.

Yulu operates 10,000 low-speed electric bikes in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai, and plans to enter 15 additional cities through 2024. The deal with Magna is aimed at scaling up the battery-swapping infrastructure to support a much larger fleet of e-bikes and scooters.

And in September 2022, Magna announced a collaboration with Cartken, a San Francisco-based autonomous robotics company, to manufacture Cartken’s Model C autonomous delivery vehicle. The ‘bot — smaller and with a lower payload rating than the Magna pizza ‘bot — is not designed for public roads. Resembling a portable ice chest with an antenna, the diminutive ‘bot’s six wheels enable it to negotiate sidewalks, narrow ramps, and travel inside buildings.

The partnership does indeed appear to be an optimal pairing. Magna will serve as contract manufacturer and intends to scale Cartken’s delivery-bot technology. The deal also allows Magna to use the Cartken ‘bot platform for other applications.

Cartken is a spinoff from Google’s ‘Area 120’ in-house incubator. Its founders envision a variety of logistics-related use cases in fields including warehousing, hotels, college campuses, and food services. the company’s initial order for 50 ‘bots entered production at a Magna Michigan plant in early September, according to Del Sorbo. The full order for the Model C vehicles is in the four-figure range, he told Automotive News. Architecturally similar to the Magna ‘bot, Cartken’s uses a simpler, less capable sensor array and can switch to remote monitoring and human control if required.

Clearly, competition in the last-mile delivery playing field is increasingly hot, drawing A-team players. GM’s BrightDrop electric delivery van group is in with its suitcase-on-wheels eCart. Dominos Pizza is a player, testing Nuro R2 AVs on delivery routes in Houston, Texas. Amazon and FedEx have active delivery ‘bot development programs. They’re just the tip of an iceberg that continues to grow.

Last mile “is a big opportunity for us,” Del Sorbo said, as Magna seeks to diversify beyond the passenger vehicle market. The company, he asserted, is looking for new business models in which it can leverage its expertise in innovation, systems savvy, and high-volume know-how. He also indicates an interest in Magna as a mobility-as-a-service (MaaS) provider. That would be a leap into non-traditional territory for a top-level Tier 1.

“Magna innovates like a tech company and operates like a start-up,” the 26-year company veteran proudly asserted. It’s a key to what he calls Magna’s “Go Forward Strategy” for which autonomous delivery ‘bots are paving the way – one hot, on-time pizza at a time — to the mobility future.