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Ford works on package-carrying robots to finish driverless deliveries 

Southfield, Michigan

IT'S A headless robot in a driverless car.

Ford is working on a way to resolve what self-driving researchers refer to "the last 50-foot problem". If an autonomous delivery vehicle arrives at your house, without any humans aboard, who is going to carry the package, grocery bags or piping-hot pizza to your doorstep? A robot, of course, could be up to the task - with no tipping necessary.

In Ford's case, the solution is Digit, an android with two stork-like legs, arms capable of carrying a 18 kg load and a camera-encrusted torso topped by a puck-shaped laser-radar sensor. It could be the headless cousin of a battle droid from the much maligned Star Wars prequels.

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The business case for driverless delivery is even more compelling than robotaxis - and potentially easier to execute. For one thing, there is no need to worry about the safety of human passengers. And the rise of online shopping has turned package delivery into a huge growth area. Just ask Amazon, which spent US$27 billion on delivery costs last year.

Remove the human driver from the equation, and delivery costs could plunge by 60 per cent or more. The benefits could be in the billions.

Ford would like to deploy Digit delivery robots  as early as 2021, alongside the planned introduction of its autonomous vehicle fleets to ferry people and packages around the clock.

"We're going to have an AV fleet out there, and my goal is to get robots to be able to be there and ready at the same time," said Craig Stephens, director of controls and automation in Ford's research and advanced engineering.

How real humans will react to this delivery android is a key part of Ford's research, which is just getting underway and will include real-world tests inside Ford factories and on the sidewalks of Dearborn, Michigan, and Pittsburgh.

"Digit looks actually pretty friendly to me," Mr Stephens said. The "inoffensive" appearance is "going to be a key thing for people to be able to trust a robot".

Digit was created by Agility Robotics, a startup with fewer than 30 people based in Albany, Oregon. Chief technology officer Jonathan Hurst said that he has not seen anyone react negatively when meeting Digit or a forbearer that lacked a torso and was simply a pair of piston-like legs attached to a motorised midsection. The robots have been allowed out on the town.

Ford is worried that wheeled robot couriers would be blocked by front-porch steps found outside most homes in America. Digit, by comparison, can climb steps and raise its arms to catch itself in a fall. Its tiny feet soled in corrugated rubber can traverse concrete, grass, wood, and ravel.

Once Digit has left the package on the porch or handed it to the recipient, it walks back to the delivery van, folds itself into a compact square, and slides into a drawer that serves as a docking station. The process looks like something out of a Transformers movie. BLOOMBERG