Even with robots doing the driving, there's been an assumption since the dawn of automated vehicle technology that humans would be sitting somewhere in the car.
The first sketches of self-driving vehicles in the 1950s depicted chrome and tail fins, and families playing board games while gliding along electrified superhighways. Modern-era pioneers have conjured visions of people using apps to hail rides from robotaxi networks.
That's starting to change.
With innovations from interstate trucking to last-mile delivery robots, a new wave of development is focused on using autonomous driving technology to carry goods instead of people.
"The time for delivery robotics is here," said Reilly Brennan, general partner at Trucks Venture Capital in San Francisco. "If you can handle a handful of shopping bags at a decent speed, this is the time for that. It wouldn't surprise me to see some robotaxi startups shift to parcel and freight."
Companies such as Nuro and Refraction AI have formed in recent years with that task in mind. Now, with delays in deploying self-driving technology for passenger-carrying purposes and a global pandemic enhancing the prospect of delivery services for consumers seeking to avoid shared vehicles and physical stores, more companies are exploring the delivery market.
Ford has said it will postpone its launch of a commercial AV service that offers both passenger and package-delivery components so it can recalibrate those plans because of COVID-19.
"We can't ignore the change in consumer behavior we have seen during COVID-19," said John Rich, director of autonomous vehicle technologies for Ford Autonomous Vehicles. "It has impacted everything, from the way we work to how we shop. This change in consumer behavior, whether permanent or temporary, is something we must fully understand."
Nuro's R2 prototypes will first be deployed around the company's Houston test hub.
Businesses are only beginning to understand how consumers now view delivery. But experts agree the pandemic has brought new delivery opportunities. They come as auto makers and tech companies examine potential operational, regulatory and safety advantages in using self-driving technology for goods delivery instead of for carrying passengers.
But delivery brings its own challenges, and it remains unclear whether delivery services are any more lucrative than the money-losing ride-hailing networks operated by Uber and Lyft.
"Just because the technology has an application doesn't mean it makes fiscal sense, and that's what this ultimately comes down to," said Ashley Nunes, a researcher who holds appointments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University and has extensively studied transportation. "With packages, the value proposition in some ways is even worse because you have the added component of physically sorting and removing the packages from the vehicle. So these little bots are cute and cool, but the question is, 'Does it make sense?' "