Alibaba to Develop Self-Driving Trucks, Eyeing Next Potential Hot Spot in China’s Tech Sector

Chinese internet giant Alibaba announced on Thursday it will develop driverless trucks with its logistics unit Cainiao, as the company ramps up efforts to follow a trend that may revolutionize the transportation industry.

Cheng Li, chief technology officer of Alibaba, said that Cainiao has partnered up with Alibaba’s research arm DAMO Academy to develop autonomous freight trucks on open roads. “Self-driving technology is becoming a core technology in the digital age,” said Cheng at the Global Smart Logistics Summit, which was held by Cainiao in Hangzhou on Thursday.

Cheng also unveiled Cainiao’s plan to introduce 1,000 autonomous delivery robots in university campuses and residential communities across China over the next year. The robot, which is named Xiaomanlv, or “Little Strong Donkey” in Chinese, could deliver 500 packages per day. During the 2020 Double Eleven online shopping festival, 22 Xiaomanlv robots cruised through the campus of Zhejiang University and delivered more than 50,000 packages to students and staff living in 27 dormitories, helping them save a total of 17,000 hours for pickup.

As of June 1, more than 40 billion parcels have been delivered to Chinese consumers year to date, nearly double the number in 2017. The challenge of final mile delivery continues to be a massive pain point for companies. The Xiaomanlv robot could replace fleets of motorbike delivery workers and deliver packages straight to people’s doorsteps.

At the Global Smart Logistics Summit, multiple universities, including Shanghai Jiaotong University and Nankai University, issued “admission letters” to the Xiaomanlv. Cainiao currently operates the driverless delivery robot on 15 campuses across China, serving more than 300,000 students and staff.

Alibaba’s move sees the e-commerce behemoth join a cohort of startups, automakers and leading technology firms – such as TikTok’s owner ByteDance, search giant Baidu and Geely-owned Volvo – competing for larger shares in the emergent autonomous-driving arena.

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On June 7, ByteDance obtained the trademark “ByteCar”, according to a record on corporate date platform Qichacha. Bloomberg in March reported that the social media titan invested in local self-driving startup QCraft’s latest fundraising round of at least $25 million, citing unnamed sources. Swedish carmaker Volvo, which is owned by Chinese carmaker Geely, announced in April that it has signed a deal with China’s ride-hailing champion Didi Chuxing to develop autonomous-driving cars for a robotaxi fleet.