DALIAN -- JD.com has taken its self-driving delivery vehicles to more than 10 Chinese cities as it scrambles to cope with worsening labor shortages.
The country's No. 2 e-tailer began making deliveries with artificial intelligence-guided autonomous vehicles in 2018. The service is now available in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Chongqing and elsewhere. The robot vehicles rely on cameras and sensors to monitor their surroundings and reach their destinations without hitting obstacles.
Customers expecting a delivery receive text notifications when packages arrive, giving them a password they can use to unlock the delivery van via a touch panel.
The vans usually make their rounds via predetermined routes on corporate and school campuses or within housing complexes. JD.com has authorization to operate the vehicles from local governments.
The company also operates unmanned convenience stores in more than 10 cities. Customers with smartphones can enter the store. When they exit with merchandise, installed cameras help each store's checkout system to automatically calculate their bill, which is settled via an app.
"Unmanned services are more efficient than staffed stores and are more convenient for customers," a JD.com spokesperson said, adding that the company plans to add to the network.
Still, installing the necessary cameras and sensors is costly, and some industry insiders are skeptical about delivery robots and unmanned stores fully taking hold in the country.
JD.com spent 12.1 billion yuan (about $1.7 billion) on related technologies in 2018, up 82% from a year earlier. Alibaba Group Holding, China's e-commerce leader, is rushing to open unmanned warehouses and develop its own AI-guided robots.
Weighed down by heavy investments, JD.com posted a net loss of 2.4 billion yuan in 2018, a deterioration from the 150 million yuan loss reported a year earlier. The company logged a 7.3 billion yuan profit for the first three months of this year. Full-year results remain to be seen.