Robot mail delivery trucks developed in Detroit ready for China, US

Mark Phelan
a yellow and black truck sitting on top of a building© Provided by Gannett Co., Inc.Looking like a delegation of toasters from space, a generation of electrically powered, self-driving mail trucks will roll out of a suburban Detroit industrial park later this year. Their mission: revolutionize mail and package delivery.

About 2,000 of the boxy, shiny Quadrobot U1 four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steer delivery vans will begin service with the Chinese postal service late this year delivering packages in cities along the populous South Coast.

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The startup company aims to have another 30 in trial service delivering goods in downtown Detroit and suburban downtowns including Birmingham and Royal Oak. Quadrobot CEO and chairman Mike Wang outlined the plans during an interview in the modest Madison Heights building where the company he founded will begin assembling Quadrobots for U.S. service later this year.

A native of Hangzhou, China, Wang came to Detroit to study automotive design at the College for Creative Studies, one of the world’s top schools for auto and industrial design.

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Detroit’s ‘brand value’

“I was skeptical at first, but I’m all in,” said John Manoogian, a longtime auto industry executive and adjunct professor of auto design at CCS. Manoogian met Wang as a CCS student. He’s now a Quadrobot investor and a board member. Quadrobot is based in the Detroit area and funded by investors in the United States and China.

“Mike showed me his prototype and I realized it was a totally unique vision,” Manoogian said. “The car business is undergoing dramatic change. This has the opportunity to make a big difference.”

Most of the U1’s engineering and all its design took place in southeast Michigan. The U1 has 35 kilowatts of power, about 47 horsepower. That’s enough for a neighborhood delivery vehicle, but 350-kw power is in development for bigger vehicles that could go farther and faster. Wang worked with local engineers to develop the vehicles.

“Detroit has the best reputation in the world for automotive engineering and design,” said Wang, 32, who worked in design and brand strategy at Fiat Chrysler after graduating from CCS.

Mike Tianye Wang, CEO and Board Chairman of Quadrobot, stands in a warehouse where the "UP" package delivery truck is housed in Madison Heights, Mich. photographed on Thursday, Feb. 5, 2019.© Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press Mike Tianye Wang, CEO and Board Chairman of Quadrobot, stands in a warehouse where the “UP” package delivery truck is housed in Madison Heights, Mich. photographed on Thursday, Feb. 5, 2019. “We wanted the U1 to look like a Detroit vehicle,” Wang said. “There’s a lot of brand value in the city of Detroit.”

‘Last mile’ delivery

The U1 is what’s called a “last mile” vehicle, designed to handle delivery in neighborhoods and downtowns. The best comparison is the mail truck your postal carrier uses, but smaller, with electric power and varying amounts of self-driving ability. It’s not a substitute for highway and intercity delivery vehicles, but rather for delivery from local businesses — and in China, the local post office.

“Last-mile solutions are particularly critical for urban areas, where traffic congestion makes this type of service increasingly time- and labor-intensive,” said Bill Visnic, editorial director of the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Autonomous Vehicle Engineering magazine.

“Last-mile service is expected to be a viable early laboratory for automated vehicles because these trips often will be on defined and easily mapped routes. There’s also potential for increased efficiency from autonomous delivery and ride-hailing, which at least in theory might help to reduce congestion.”

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Quadrobot's Urban Parcel model is connected to the internet and stands in a warehouse in Madison Heights, Mich. photographed on Thursday, Feb. 5, 2019.© Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press Quadrobot’s Urban Parcel model is connected to the internet and stands in a warehouse in Madison Heights, Mich. photographed on Thursday, Feb. 5, 2019. The U1 has a windshield, driver’s seat and controls. At least the first couple of thousand will be driver-operated as Quadrobot gathers data about how they’re used.  An autonomous system will oversee the driver, braking if the U1 enters a turn too fast and steering if the driver makes a wrong turn.

‘Like a pet’

A human attendant will handle package pickup and delivery, but the U1 will be able to autonomously trail its operator down a street or around a parking lot while the person delivers multiple packages.

“It’s like a pet following you,” Wang said.

Delivery will be easier to automate in China, where standardized lockers have replaced individual mailboxes. Wang also foresees using the U1 as a mobile locker for people to drop off objects for pickup. It could also house vending machines, including food that’s freshly cooked and positioned around town or in neighborhoods for easy meal pickup at the end of the day.

a close up of a car: Quadrobot's Urban Parcel model has a passive body that is separate from the propulsion/suspension chassis photographed on Thursday, Feb. 5, 2019.© Kimberly P. Mitchell, Detroit Free Press Quadrobot’s Urban Parcel model has a passive body that is separate from the propulsion/suspension chassis photographed on Thursday, Feb. 5, 2019. Wang foresees some of those stationary uses taking place while the U1 charges its lithium-ion batteries. Quadrobot is working with a supplier on a fast-charge 300-volt system that could deliver a full charge for a 12-hour delivery shift in 40 minutes or so.

Wang worked on the design and brand strategy of the SRT Viper at FCA after graduating from CCS in 2012. He spent a lot of time at FCA’s low-volume Conner Avenue assembly plant in Detroit. That work influenced U1 development, because FCA relied on suppliers to assemble many of the sports car’s modules, the same system Quadrobot uses.

Hiring begins in 2nd quarter

The U1 is modular. The running gear, batteries, electric motors, steering, etc. are packaged in a lower portion that resembles a mattress with wheels. Suppliers will ship those modules to Quadrobot facilities for assembly and attachment to bodies for cargo, vending machines, etc. The modules and body are put together with bolts and glue, making assembly inexpensive and low-cost.

Three assembly facilities in China will employ about 200 people, Wang said. The one planned for Madison Heights should need about 50 by the end of the year. He expects to begin hiring late in the second quarter. The company will hold a job fair. You can get information at  www.4-bot.com and info@4-bot.com.

The flexible platform lends itself to making other electric vehicles, including a possible SUV, Wang said. He’s working with the Michigan Economic Development Corp and Detroit Economic Growth Corp. on local development and employment.

Contact Mark Phelan at 313-222-6731 ormmphelan@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @mark_phelan. Read more on autos and sign up for our autos newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Robot mail delivery trucks developed in Detroit ready for China, US

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Why the US Postal Service is never affected by government shutdowns

usps postal service amazon
A US Postal worker delivers Amazon boxes outside of the New York Stock Exchange. The USPS is not affected by the government shutdown.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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  • The partial government shutdown is now in day 32.
  • While many services are closed during the shutdown, the US Postal Service is still fully functional.
  • This is because the USPS has been self-sustaining since 1982 and receives almost no congressionally appropriated funding.
  • The shutdown only affects congressional funding that is approved annually, so self-sustaining operations like the Postal Service are spared.

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor government shutdown can slow down the US Postal Service, as the ongoing fight between President Donald Trump and Democrats has done nothing to disrupt the flow of mail around the country.

In fact, due to the unique structure of the USPS, government shutdowns never touch the mail delivery service.

Since the funding lapses that cause shutdowns only apply to annually-appropriated funding, permanently funded services or services funded through user fees are not affected by the shutdown. So self-sustaining programs, like the Postal Service or passport issuance, or permanently-funded programs, like Social Security, do not get caught up in the budget battle.

The USPS generates most of its own funding through the roughly $70 billion in operating revenue taken in each year from the sale of stamps, cost of shipping, and other operations.

“As an ‘independent establishment of the Executive Branch of the Government of the United States,’ we receive no tax dollars for ongoing operations and have not received an appropriation for operational costs since 1982,” the USPS said in its annual financial filing. “We fund our operations chiefly through cash generated from operations and by borrowing from the Federal Financing Bank (‘FFB’), a government-owned corporation under the general supervision of the Secretary of the Treasury.”

The Postal Service became fully independent in 1971 and drew some congressional funding until 1982, when the USPS was totally weaned off of taxpayer money.

There are also some technical issues related to the way the USPS is treated in the budgeting process, but for the most part the USPS is self-sustaining and not subject to congressional funding squabbles. And while the service has faced some financial issues in recent years, many of those problems were caused by the USPS’s inability to raise prices to stay competitive with the private sector, not the lack of taxpayer money.

The only consistent appropriation given to the USPS by Congress is reimbursement for low-cost postage that is given to the blind and for overseas absentee ballots.

While the USPS is spared, there are still wide-ranging effects from the shutdown as it drags into a second month. From airports to food programs to 800,000 unpaid federal workers the shutdown is starting to get real.

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USPS suspends Wednesday mail delivery; area mail carriers previously expressed concerns of working frigid weather

USPS suspends Wednesday mail delivery; area mail carriers previously expressed concerns of working frigid weather

**UPDATE: The USPS has suspended Wednesday’s mail delivery for several Midwest states, including all of Michigan and large swaths of Ohio, because of the arctic cold. Updated story HERE.

TOLEDO (WTOL) – Some services, such as trash pickup, have already been suspended for Wednesday due to the expected sub-zero temperatures.

But others, like mail delivery, will still happen. That has some local carriers concerned for their safety.

Mail carrier furious that USPS is making employees work during frigid weather

“There’s no type of mail in this world or package that is worth our safety,” said Katie Keister, a four year USPS mail carrier in south Toledo.

The USPS unofficial motto goes, “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” But as far as Keister is concerned, Wednesday’s forecast is where she draws the line.

“It’s not safe,” she said. “You know, a lot of people don’t shovel, they don’t put salt down. It’s very dangerous. With the frostbite you can get within 10 minutes and for us to be out here over six hours, it’s dangerous.”

Keister said she and some colleagues have voiced their concerns to superiors, but to no avail.

The Postmaster General is based out of Washington, D.C.

WTOL reached out to the U.S. Postal Service to find out why mail carriers are being required to work and for clarity on the chain-of-command in these instances, but didn’t immediately hear back.

Copyright 2019 WTOL. All rights reserved.

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