Ocado invests in Oxbotica as it steps up plans to automate vehicle fleet

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Ocado Group plc, a leading UK online grocery platform and solutions provider, has formed a multi-year commercial partnership with Oxbotica Ltd, a developer of autonomous vehicle software, headquartered in Oxford, UK. The ultimate ambition is to enable Ocado’s partners that use the Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) to reduce the costs of last-mile delivery and other logistics operations.

The companies will collaborate on hardware and software interfaces for autonomous vehicles, enhancing and integrating Oxbotica’s autonomy software platform into a variety of vehicles. The use cases range from vehicles that operate inside of Ocado’s Customer Fulfilment Centre (CFC) buildings and the yard areas that surround them, all the way to last-mile deliveries and curb-to-kitchen robots.

The Ocado/Oxbotica relationship began in 2017, when both companies conducted a two-week trial using an early prototype delivery vehicle doing autonomous deliveries in Greenwich, London. Since that initial trial, Oxbotica has made significant progress in developing its platform, leading to today’s announcement of a broader relationship that includes both Ocado’s financial investment and a commercial collaboration agreement.

Oxbotica’s two core products are Selenium and Caesium. Selenium is an on-vehicle suite of software that brings full autonomy to a vehicle in a way that is agnostic to both hardware and environment. Caesium is a cloud-based autonomy management system that brings fine-grained control, audit, data management and monitoring to autonomous fleets. Oxbotica’s products use an advanced set of AI, machine learning and optimization technologies to yield a low-power, safe, explainable, quick-to-deploy, modular and fully flexible ‘Universal Autonomy’ platform.

Ocado will build teams of engineers within its existing Advanced Technology division to work with Oxbotica on these diverse use cases. The Advanced Technology division is independent from the engineering team that develops core OSP software and automation. The initial development work will focus on UK operations, and will then extend to international markets where Ocado’s partners operate.

Over the last five years Ocado has created more than 8,000 new jobs in the UK and abroad, with headcount now approaching 19,000 employees. As with its robotics business, this vehicle autonomy program is not expected to have any impact on Ocado’s current hiring or employment levels within logistics or operations groups.

Logistics costs constitute the single largest line item in the operating cost structure of online grocery. Moving finished orders from CFCs to ‘spokes’ (where they are then cross-docked to delivery vans) represents approximately 1.5% of sales in the UK; the cost of final-mile delivery is approximately 10% of sales. Labor represents approximately 50% of these costs.

Beyond potential cost savings within its core operations, Ocado sees significant opportunities to improve its partners’ customer propositions by being better able to respond to peak delivery demands, reducing the cost-to-serve of its immediacy proposition and accelerating the shift to electrically-powered vehicles (thereby improving fleet sustainability and reducing environmental impact).

For regulatory and complexity reasons, Ocado expects that the development of vehicles that operate in low-speed urban areas or in restricted-access areas, such as inside its CFC buildings or within its CFC yards, may become a reality sooner than fully autonomous deliveries to consumers’ homes. However, all aspects of autonomous vehicle development will be within the scope of this collaboration. Ocado expects to see the first prototypes of some early use cases for autonomous vehicles within two years.

As part of the collaboration, Ocado will outfit a subset of its delivery vans and warehouse vehicles with data capture capabilities, which may include video cameras, lidar, radar and other sensing devices. Ocado will make this data available to Oxbotica to train and test its technologies, which will then inform Ocado as to what opportunities exist and where best it might take advantage of these exciting new partnerships.

“We are excited about the opportunity to work with Oxbotica to develop a wide range of autonomous solutions that truly have the potential to transform both our and our partners’ CFC and service delivery operations, while also giving all end customers the widest range of options and flexibility,” said Alex Harvey, chief of advanced technology at Ocado.

“This is an excellent opportunity for Oxbotica and Ocado to strengthen our partnership, sharing our vision for the future of autonomy,” added Paul Newman, co-founder and CTO of Oxbotica. “By combining both companies’ cutting-edge knowledge and resources, we hope to bring our Universal Autonomy vision to life and continue to solve some of the world’s most complex autonomy challenges.”

Ocado will invest £10m (US$13.9m) in Oxbotica as part of Oxbotica’s latest Series B equity funding round. The round was led by BP Ventures, and included other strategic and financial investors in the US, the UK, China and Australia, such as Tencent, Halma, BGF, HostPlus, IP Group, Venture Science, and funds advised by Doxa Partners. Ocado will take a seat on Oxbotica’s board.

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With over 20 years experience in editorial management and content creation for multiple, market-leading titles at UKi Media & Events (publisher of Autonomous Vehicle International), Anthony has written articles and news covering everything from aircraft, airports and cars, to cruise ships, trains, trucks and even tires!

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