The company has won protection for the concept of using its autonomous vehicle technology, currently under development, to deliver packages to customers in the future.
Now with federal support for the eventual deployment of cars that could drive without a human inside, Google has won a patent for a self-driving truck that would deliver packages to customers.
The patent, awarded on Feb. 9, describes a truck with packages in lockers that customers would be able to open with either a numeric code or by swiping the card they bought the item with. The company described a system where it would text a PIN to a customer’s phone, which they could use to open the locker. The same system would let the recipient know when the truck was close to its destination.
Google left open the possibilities for what those trucks could deliver — it could be anything from packages to pizza. The patent also described a delivery network at least somewhat decentralized: While out delivering packages, a truck could stop at different pickup destinations where it could load more items to deliver.
“The growth of business-to-consumer e-commerce, online shopping for example, is expected to continue to increase the demand for delivery services, and hence the need for capacity and efficiency in the last mile [of delivery],” the patent reads.
The package delivery business is a competitive one right now, with several technology companies looking for new ways to enter the market. Uber debuted a pilot test for a service where on-demand couriers pick up and drop off packages in October, while Amazon is working on a fleet of drones to deliver packages through the air, bypassing ground traffic entirely.
Google’s newly patented concept would rely on the company’s test-phase autonomous vehicle technology. The company has driven more than 1 million miles in autonomous mode on public roads in Mountain View, Calif., and Austin, Texas, and recently expanded to Kirkland, Wash.
If the vehicles were truly to operate without human drivers, it would conflict with proposed regulations from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The department’s draft regulations require a licensed driver to sit behind the wheel of autonomous vehicles ready to take control — a move Google and other companies racing to develop AVs have urged the department to reconsider.
The federal government, meanwhile, has come out in symbolic support of fully autonomous vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has promised to put out model guidelines for regulating autonomous vehicles this year, and President Obama’s proposed budget sets aside about $4 billion to support testing of autonomous and connected vehicles. On Feb. 4, NHTSA wrote a letter to Google clarifying that its self-driving software could be considered a “driver” for regulatory purposes in a move that signaled the vehicles could pass at least some federal safety tests should they go to market.