Amazon working on self-driving tech, but it's not ready for prime time

Amazon delivery drone prototype _ MGN_Amazon 042717.jpg
According to insider reports, the Amazon is looking at ways to use self-driving technology to improve its bottom line and speed up deliveries. (Image courtesy of MGN / Amazon)

Most of the talk about self-driving cars is focused on everyday consumers: Do they like the technology? Do they feel comfortable with it? Will they buy autonomous vehicles?

But in fact, the first large-scale applications for self-driving technology are likely to be commercial. Every week, it seems like we hear of a new autonomous shuttle service, and self-driving big rigs are likely just around the bend (though one of the leaders in that field could be parked for a bit).

Of course, when it comes to commerce, few names are as big as Amazon. And according to insider reports, the retail giant is looking at ways to use self-driving technology to improve its bottom line and speed up deliveries.

The Amazon team tasked with sorting through the possibilities is small, consisting of about 12 employees. It's only been meeting for about a year, but it has plenty of options to consider, some of which Amazon began exploring long before the team was launched. For example:

1. Drones: This is Amazon's highest-profile project and would be largely autonomous. However, because it's an entirely new kind of delivery system, it will take a while to work out the kinks and get regulatory approval.

2. 18-wheelers: Like many businesses, Amazon depends on cargo shipments from big rigs. Human drivers can only work about ten hours each day, but self-driving 18-wheelers can travel around the clock. Insiders report that Amazon isn't planning to create a fleet of autonomous vehicles, but that could easily change.

3. Cargo ships: Amazon sells plenty of items from abroad, and having a fleet of self-steering cargo ships crossing the Atlantic and Pacific could potentially speed up deliveries and reduce labor costs.

4. Delivery trucks: Amazon depends on the U.S. Postal Service and UPS to deliver its millions of packages. If it were to use self-driving delivery trucks instead--either its own or a contracted fleet--it could potentially save some cash. (And as an added benefit, it might let consumers know exactly where their packages are at any given time.) As with drones, Amazon would need to work out the specifics of how packages are handed over, but if restaurants can manage that, so can Amazon.

5. Warehouse management: Amazon warehouses are as complex and confusing as you imagine--probably more so. Employing self-driving vehicles to move and organize items at Amazon hubs could let human employees focus on more important matters, like taking complaints over the phone.

Amazon hasn't confirmed or denied these rumors, but given the past actions of the company and its entrepreneurially minded CEO, Jeff Bezos, it's safe to assume that any and all of these options are on the table.

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