The (Crazy, Amazing) Future of Autonomous Delivery Services

July 14, 2017

automated delivery services The future of delivery isn’t up in the air. It’s on the road — and there’s no one behind the wheel. While people are excited about the prospect of drone delivery (remember the drone that delivered Chipotle burritos at Virginia Tech?), the real future of automated delivery services is going to be self-driving vehicles.

“The autonomous supply chain will create enormous opportunities to make the flow of goods safer, more efficient and environmentally friendly: self-driving cars alone would reduce accidents by 70%, improve fuel-efficiency by 20%, and save about 1.2 billion hours of pure driving time over a period of ten years,” according to the World Economic Forum.

But we’re not quite there yet. In the world of delivery, the biggest challenge is the “last mile” — carrying packages to the front doors or offices of the people who ordered them. Here’s how automated delivery services are solving that challenge.

Who’s testing automated delivery services?

Drones are cool, if you ignore the fact that they sound like overgrown wasps, but they have problems. The Federal Aviation Administration prohibits drones from flying out of an operator’s sight, for one thing. And there’s no system in place for managing traffic, or ensuring people’s safety, if large numbers of drones take to the sky.

We do have lots of roads, however.

And quite a few companies are exploring ways to use driverless cars to automate delivery.

Vehicle to Vehicle

  • Ocado, an online-only supermarket, began testing automated delivery of groceries in Greenwich, England in 2017. A small, electric driverless van called the CargoPod, built by Oxbotica, is outfitted with several numbered compartments. An Ars Technica writer describes the experience: “I push a button on the side of the van, one of eight doors pops open, and I lift out a box of groceries. In the box there’s the muesli, dried mango pieces, and a few other bits that I ordered via the Ocado website a few days ago.” Ocado hopes to offer driverless deliveries on a large scale by 2021.
  • Uber used a self-driving truck to carry a load of beer from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs in 2016 — the first time a commercial shipment had been completed using a self-driving vehicle. It was a real-world test, too, as the truck shared the road with normal traffic. A human driver rode along, just in case, and a police car followed.
  • Starship Technologies is testing automated delivery services on a smaller scale. A fleet of about 20 sidewalk-roaming robots deliver takeout meals in Washington, D.C. “Each 35-pound bot is essentially a medium-sized cooler on six wheels, and drives at an average speed of about 4 miles per hour,” NPR reports. Customers unlock the bot with a smartphone app to retrieve their order.
  • Amazon “Shipping is one of Amazon’s greatest expenses, and it’s always looking for new ways to improve the efficiency of its supply chain, eliminating middlemen like UPS and FedEx while adding new infrastructure and technology,” Wired reports. Toward that end, it’s developing an Uber-like app to connect (human) drivers with its shipments. Some watchers think automated delivery is next on the list. Amazon has also been a frontrunner in drone delivery. Amazon has even filed a patent for a tall, beehive-like tower where drones could pick up their packages and then depart.

Automated delivery services and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication

When we think about the future of driverless cars, the big challenge is how these vehicles sense their environment and react accordingly. How can an autonomous vehicle adjust to hazards like construction work, red-light runners and rush-hour traffic?

Waymo, GM and other companies are building advanced sensors and guidance systems into their driverless cars, but they’re also seeing tremendous opportunities in vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V). V2V is, essentially, a technology that allows vehicles to communicate with each other about dangers and road conditions. If a vehicle is traveling around a sharp bend in the road and suddenly stops because of a rock slide blocking the way, it would in turn alert any cars behind it giving them enough braking time to avoid a rear-end collision.

Beyond V2V is vehicle-to-infrastructure communication (V2I). Imagine that not only are driverless vehicles talking to each other, but they’re also communicating with a central network to deliver and receive real-time updates on road closures, traffic, etc. Engineers are developing software that can coordinate the movements of thousands of driverless vehicles simultaneously. Imagine a vast ballet of autonomous delivery trucks, cars and robots, with every movement carefully controlled.  

The Pros and Cons of Automated Delivery

This strange new world has a lot of appeal. For one thing, it will probably be safer. More than 35,000 people died in traffic accidents in 2015, and 94 percent of those deaths can be traced to human error. In short, our mistakes are killing a lot of people. In a world with driverless cars and trucks, those accidental deaths would be drastically reduced.

Also, automated delivery services and intelligent transportation systems will make the system much speedier and more efficient. Your deliveries will arrive faster and probably be cheaper to ship. And people who live in remote areas, or live with disabilities that limit mobility, may find it easier to get the everyday supplies they need.

And the cons of automated delivery services? The big one is obvious: the tremendous loss of jobs. There are some 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States, as well as 8.7 million more people whose jobs are associated with the trucking industry. This map shows that “truck driver” is the most common profession in a majority of states. And, as writer Scott Santen points out, “Truck driving is just about the last job in the country to provide a solid middle class salary without requiring a post-secondary degree.” Hello to driverless vehicles, goodbye to an American way of life.

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