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Amazon’s Answer to Uber — Part 2

TBD Insider — Product reviews from the Near Future

And now, here’s the exciting conclusion to my journey on Carriage, Amazon’s new human delivery service.

Photo Courtesy of Burak Kebapci

Did he live? Did he ever get to his destination? Did he get smashed in a trash compactor after being mistaken for a recycling container? Read on!

So there I was, sitting in the Carriage pod that the delivery vehicle had placed in front of my house in Berkeley. Connecting my iPhone and laptop was a snap. And soon I was listening to my Yo Yo Ma / James Taylor Pandora station (don’t judge!) and writing my notes for this review on the high-def screen that filled the front wall of the Carriage.

A map in the top right corner of the screen showed where the delivery vehicle was and when it would arrive. And sure enough, ten minutes later I could hear it approaching. Then something cool happened. The walls to the left and right of me turned from opaque to transparent, and the screen switched from my laptop to the front-mounted camera. The effect was as if the walls of the Carriage had melted away, and I felt like I was sitting out in the open on a sunny morning.

The bus-sized delivery vehicle pulled up and opened its side to reveal two rows of 20 Carriages each — minus one. The hydraulic arms picked up my Carriage and placed it in the empty slot on the top row, third from the front.

Ever imagine being a garbage can getting picked up and shaken into a garbage truck?

That’s what I was imagining this experience would be like. But much to my relief, the robotic arms and intermodal connector on the Carriage were incredibly smooth. There was no jarring knock when the arms connected with the Carriage, no lurching during the lift. My coffee cup on the table didn’t even jiggle.

Then the sides turned opaque again as the outer door came down, and the screen switched to the delivery vehicle’s front camera. Amazon told me they had calibrated the camera to avoid motion sickness. But as any regular bus rider can tell you, sometimes that last pothole is going to make you revisit your breakfast no matter how many windows you have. And that’s where Carriage is a true game changer. The delivery vehicle’s autonomous driving system had learned the roads. In the handful of cases where it couldn’t avoid a bump, the screen alerted me beforehand. I’ve never had a more comfortable ride. If it weren’t for this major innovation, I doubt I’d find myself using Carriage regularly.

Unlike a bus, Carriage delivers point-to-point and isn’t on a route. So on this trip — as I was probably the only one aboard — the delivery vehicle went straight to its special rail depot. And this is where something like Carriage needs the heft of a major logistics player like Amazon. They had managed to get CalTrain and Bart to allow a limited number of special Carriage rail cars onto their lines.

The delivery vehicle sided up to the rail car and transferred me. Same super-smooth experience. And then I was off to Palo Alto. I arrived for my meeting at 525 University Avenue after transferring in Millbrae from the Bart car to the Caltrain car and finally to the Palo Alto delivery vehicle. The clock read 9:08 — almost ten minutes late.

Amazon tells me that its “delivery time” estimates will become more and and more accurate with experience. Still, the whole trip took almost a full hour less than if I had driven or caught an Uber. And I got to work the whole time, including making a few private calls — try that on public transit!

I checked what Uber would have cost for the trip: $65 each way — without surge pricing.

Carriage is still in Beta, so prices aren’t fixed yet, but the economics of the system could drive fares for intercity-local “delivery” into the single-digits.

But before they achieve scale — and put a lot more of those rail depots in more cities — I bet Amazon will have to invest significantly before things turn profitable.

As a minimally-viable-product, this is a big one. It took a lot to build those pods, delivery vehicles and rail depots. But this is just a test run for where Amazon intends to go. I’m waiting for the day when I can order a Carriage to deliver me from my home in Berkeley straight to a meeting in New York. Imagine not having to catch a cab to the airport, wait in lines, squeeze your way to a middle-seat, and then repeat the process! To avoid all that, I’d gladly let Jeff Bezos deliver me like a sack of diapers.

If you like this “product review,” subscribe to TBDInsider for a new story every Wednesday and Sunday morning.

This story is fiction, based entirely on our fevered imagination of products and services that could be delivered to market based on current and emerging know-how — given sufficient resource and intent. Any resemblance to people or real products, either released or planned, is purely coincidental.

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Tomorrow’s Breaking Delivery: Insider Product Reviews from the Near Future

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John Wolpert

John Wolpert

Seeker of Awesomeness: The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent the positions, strategies or opinions of my employer, ConsenSys.

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