When Bob Dylan sang “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” he was part of the counterculture, advocating the necessity to go underground and dodge “the man.” Pipedream Labs seems to have taken that advice to heart… at least when it comes to last-mile deliveries. The startup is actively developing and testing an underground delivery system designed to provide fast, low-cost food delivery to consumers, and while this might sound like a throwback to the old pneumatic tubes of the past, well, it somewhat is. But instead of suction driven transport, this tunnel delivery system uses small electric autonomous vehicles to do its work. The concept is truly intriguing, especially when considering all the problems current last-mile deliveries have. But an underground delivery system has its own barriers to deal with up front. This might cause Pipedream Labs to also suffer from subterranean homesick blues unless they can convince others of their potential.
Pipedream’s Tunnel Delivery System
The original pneumatic tube systems date back to the late 19th century. Written messages, memos, and currency were routinely transported by these devices for decades. But when it comes to suction-driven a tunnel delivery system, its rather unreliable. Plus, moving items of more sizable weight including meals can be problematic. Digital advances all but eliminated this type of an above-ground and underground delivery system. That is until now. These same digital advances have provided the technology to reconsider such an approach to last-mile deliveries. And Pipedream Labs is focusing on meals as its initial test of such a concept. Just recently, it launched its own test site of their system in Peachtree Corners outside of Atlanta. And so far, things are going well.
The tunnel delivery system designed by Pipedream Labs involves an 18-inch tube that lies about 3-6 feet underground. Within this underground delivery system, small autonomous transport vehicles run on electric batteries transporting meals. These AVs can carry up to 40 pounds, and they can travel up to 45 mph as they travel along these tubes. Plus, they have been deemed safe to operate and also extremely quiet, especially compared to above-ground options. This sounds quite impressive, and so far, the development of this test-site tunnel delivery system looks promising. Dozens of employees are already using it for lunch meal requests with no major problems to date.
Peachtree Corners’ Test Site
In selecting a test site for its underground delivery system, Pipedream Labs made an excellent choice. Peachtree Corners, which is a community northeast of Atlanta, has already been a testing site for other innovations. The community was incorporated in 2012, but it has been a unique destination since its development in the 1960s. Designed as a planned community, Peachtree Corners became one of the first technology parks. As such, it has already piloted 2 other innovative technologies. One involved remote-operated e-scooters while the other pertained to 5G traffic signal integrations for autonomous vehicles. It’s therefore not too surprising that Pipedream Labs found Peachtree Corners attractive.
The plan for the underground delivery system in Peachtree Corners involved connecting two destinations. One location was Curiosity Labs, which is a 500-acre innovation center in the community. It hosts 12 different companies and their employees, which served as ideal customers for the tunnel delivery system. The other site in Peachtree Corners was local retail shopping centers from where meals and orders could be fulfilled. Currently, staff at Curiosity Labs’ location can order lunch Monday through Friday using the AV-delivery model. For the convenience, they only pay a 25-cent surcharge as Pipedream Labs covers the remainder of the costs. With this type of design and size community, few difficulties have been encountered. But scaling upwards could be another thing.
The Promise and the Challenges of an Underground Delivery System
When it comes to designing and constructing a tunnel delivery system, obstacles certainly exist. For new construction, costs and designs are readily adopted into a plan. But this isn’t the case when it comes to existing cities and communities. In these instances, existing infrastructures like sewer lines or other conduits must be retrofitted. If this involves dealing with city or county governments, regulatory barriers may pose additional challenges. And the same may be true if utility entities are involved. The bottom line is that up-front costs with an underground delivery system can be formidable. Between development costs and inherent inconveniences during construction, many cities may simply choose to go another direction. Even in Peachtree Corners, the construction process took eight months to complete between two sites.
While this might sound disheartening, it’s important to appreciate the lasting benefits that such a tunnel delivery system might bring. Imagine a hyperlogistics system that can move items to and from destinations in 10 minutes or less. That also includes returning an item that might not be wanted or damaged. Likewise, once in place, the cost of such transport would be minimal. Pipedream Labs’ goal is to offer a reliable underground delivery system for less than $1 a trip. Then there’s also the marked reduction in carbon emissions and traffic that would be enjoyed if this system was in place. Given that 40% of all supply logistics involve last-mile trips, these benefits would be substantial. For all of these reasons, going subterranean makes sense if getting past infrastructure hurdles can be accomplished. Let’s hope Pipedream Labs figures this out and not crying their own subterranean homesick blues in the near future.