THE WORD “Hello” is displayed on a Neolix autonomous vehicle during a launch event at the company’s facility in Changzhou, Jiangsu province, China, last week. Bloomberg
INTERNATIONAL - Forget drones. The future of deliveries may be robo-vans.

A Chinese start-up called Neolix kicked off mass production of its self-driving delivery vehicles on Friday - saying it's the first company globally to do so - and has lined up giants such as JD.Com and Huawei Technologies as customers. Neolix expects to deliver 1000 of the vehicles, which resemble tiny vans, within the first year as it broadens out.

The implications are potentially huge: billionaire Jack Ma predicts there will be 1billion deliveries a day in China within a decade and the commercialisation of the technology could provide lessons for autonomous vehicles carrying passengers. Neolix isn't alone in this space as Silicon Valley’s Nuro raised almost a billion dollars this year and is starting to deliver groceries in Arizona.

“Driverless cars will change the world, just like the shift from the carriage to the automobile,” Neolix founder Yu Enyuan, 45, said in an interview at his office in Beijing. “I have been looking for something that is worth fighting with everything I have and what I am doing now is that.”

Yu has been testing more than 100 of the vehicles in enclosed areas such as Chinese campuses. The vehicles are priced similar to a regular car - a Neolix van costs about $30000 (R432756).

The entrepreneur, who was previously an inventor of smart tools for the logistics industry, said delivery of goods was just the start. Down the road, he envisages fleets of robo-vans providing everything from 24/7 mobile vending to help with running errands.

His confidence stems from the Chinese e-commerce boom that's spawned Goliaths such as Ma’s Alibaba Group, which is valued at $400billion.

While humans are trying to keep up and becoming more efficient with inventions such as smart lockers, there’s no doubt robots are becoming an increasing threat. With robo-vans, there’s no need for a messenger who will need a salary, and robo-vehicles are bound to have fewer accidents than humans.

One limitation: either a human needs to be present to accept the package, or the vehicle has to leave the parcel at a prearranged accessible location such as a ground-floor locker. One solution proposed by Ford is a small robot that walks on two legs to bring the parcel from the vehicle to the doorstep.

While self-driving cars that carry passengers still face significant regulatory obstacles, Yu says the path has been easier for unmanned delivery vehicles. The company's vans are operating in the new Xiongan economic zone about 100km south-west of Beijing, as well as in limited areas of the capital and the city of Changzhou.

China’s not the only place where robo-deliveries are emerging. In the US, large self-driving trucks are hauling mail between Phoenix and Dallas, and Nuro started a robo-delivery service with grocer Kroger Co in Scottsdale, Arizona, in December.

Neolix is talking to potential customers in countries including Switzerland, Japan and the US.  

BLOOMBERG