Imagine ordering food at your favorite restaurant and having it show up at your office or living room a few minutes later. This is the idea of Pipedream Labs, who want to connect restaurants, supermarkets and homes with an underground delivery system.
Delivery Goes Underground
The idea behind Pipedream is similar to the concept of pneumatic delivery: Put the goods you want to deliver in a capsule, put the capsule in a pipe that leads to the destination, and then send the capsule on its way. The recipient opens the capsule and retrieves the goods. Unlike pneumatic shipping, Pipedream’s capsule is not powered by a vacuum, but by a robot that runs on rails.
The company [Pipedream Labs] (https://www.pipedreamlabs.co) has unveiled a first real-life demonstrator in the city of Peachtree Corners, Georgia. In this video you can see how the system works:
Hyperloop for Packages?
The preview of the video says “Hyperloop for Packages”? That promises a lot: The Hyperloop concept sounds high-tech, with magnetic levitation trains traveling at high speeds in a vacuum. The Pipedream concept, on the other hand, looks much more low-tech. The trains run in standard pipes. The robots go up to 40 mph, which is much slower than a hyperloop. But for urban delivery, this would be sufficient and probably faster than any courier could travel through dense city traffic.
Still, I wonder what the market segment for this technology will be. The robots are designed to carry groceries or cooked food. But the food and grocery delivery segment is already well developed, with many delivery companies like Uber Eats, Lieferando, and others. They offer the same service, but they use bicycles or motorcycles, so they are not really affected by traffic congestion.
More importantly, they use an infrastructure that everyone is already connected to: The street.
Then what would convince customers to invest in a connection to the Pipedream network when they already have a connection to the road and get the delivery for free? And what is the incentive for senders like restaurants and supermarkets to build all the infrastructure and hire the additional staff needed to handle the deliveries?
In addition to the business side, I wonder how the technical side will work. The current demonstrator is just a single connection between two fairly new buildings. But how do you connect existing buildings to the network? For each building you want to connect, you have to make some space available in the basement, which is not always easy. And then you have to find your way around all the existing underground infrastructure that is already connected to the house, such as sewers, electricity, or district heating. It sounds like a lot of work, and in many cases it may not even be feasible.
Of course, this is much easier if you are building a new neighborhood from scratch. Then you could connect each house to the network from the beginning. However, you still need a lot of senders connected to the network to make the system interesting for users.
There is also the question of the reliability of the system. Basically, you will have cars traveling in pipes that are too small for people. This is a recipe for disaster. What do you do if one of the cars gets stuck, or maybe two of them crash? How do you get them out? How do you repair the pipes afterwards? This is a problem that brought down the London Pneumatic Despatch Company more than 170 years ago, and I do not see any new solutions in the concept of Pipedreams.
And what about all the other challenges waiting underground? Tunnels can be flooded or blocked by debris. And there are a lot of animals that live underground. I could see rats finding these tunnels very cozy, and an operator would have to be very careful to keep them free of rats.
When building a delivery network, capacity is a critical factor. How many cars can run in this network?
The minimum distance between cars is given by the stopping distance. A car must be able to stop in time to avoid hitting another car in front of it. Using the maximum speed of 40mph (about 64kph) and the online calculator provided by Johannes Strommer, the stopping distance on wet tracks is about 130m. Of course, this is just a rough estimate since we do not know the actual parameters of the Pipedreams system, but it should give us a ballpark figure.
If we assume a single track like the one in the video, which is 0.7 miles (or 1.13 km) long. Then it could carry a maximum of 1130m / 130m = 8.7 cars at the same time. This is about 9 meals at the same time over a distance of a little more than a kilometer – far less than you could fit in a single car on the road.
And this does not even take into account other issues, such as the need for the robots to slow down when they need to turn or change direction, as they will need to do in a real meshed network.
The idea of sending goods underground is not new. The Pipedream system gives it a new twist by using robots and electric motors instead of vacuum and tightly sealed pipes. However, some fundamental challenges that such underground transportation systems face have not yet been addressed, as we can see from their homepage.
Even though Pipedreams uses off-the-shelf components for the infrastructure, connecting enough senders and receivers to the network will be a huge challenge, especially in existing cities where the underground is already densely packed.
And even if you had a connection at home? Would it be worth the hassle just to get some food delivered that you could get for free on the street? I expect this to have little appeal to customers and, due to the low capacity of the system, little effect on overall traffic in the city.
A better approach might be to focus on larger packages, so that everything you order from Amazon and the like comes straight to your door. I can imagine that people would be willing to pay for that, since you wouldn’t have to wonder where the delivery service left your package. But this would require bigger tunnels and more capacity of the whole system – something more like the CargoCap system.
As much as I long for a future where stuff arrives at my home underground, I don’t see any promising developments in that direction yet.