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Why Amazon’s Research Into Self-Driving Vehicles Makes Sense

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An Amazon Fresh truck parked outside a warehouse.Photo by Kevork Djansezian—Getty Images

Raise your hand if your company isn’t somehow involved with developing technology for autonomous vehicles. Okay, if your hand is up, quick question: What’s wrong with you?! Don’t you know you’re nothing right now if you’re not working on a self-driving car?

(You can put your hand down now. I’m kidding.)

To review, robotic vehicles not so long ago were the preserve of the Jetsons, locomotives and some other mass-transit trains, and various competitions funded by DARPA, the federal agency whose predecessor, ARPA, developed the Internet.

Then Google (GOOG), seemingly inexplicably, started fooling around with cars without steering wheels, a “moonshot” unit now known as Waymo. Into the fray jumped Tesla and its Autopilot technology; General Motors (GM), which bought 15-minute-old Cruise Automation and partnered with Lyft; Uber, which raided Carnegie Mellon’s roboticists, bought an autonomous trucking company called Otto, and got sued by the aforementioned Waymo; and Apple (AAPL), which has said nary a peep about its self-driving aspirations, though it obviously has them.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg. The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating report that now Amazon (AMZN) is investigating autonomous technology too with a top-secret team devoted to the topic. The Journal said “the team serves as an in-house think tank to figure out how to leverage autonomous vehicles,” presumably for the purpose of delivery of packages. The account also said Amazon recently hosted a “radical transportation salon” on the future of transportation.

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At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution companies specialized. They focused on electricity generation or steel manufacturing and the like. Today, the “frenemies” of the digital age must be end to end, or intelligent conglomerates. It isn’t sufficient to make software or Web-enabled platforms, for example. The megacaps of tech build their own data centers. Uber, a ride-hailing app, feels compelled to develop its own robotic-car technology. Amazon, already a massive UPS (UPS) and United States Postal Service customer, is snapping up its own planes.

It probably won’t want people to fly them either.