1) The future of autonomous deliveries
That, autonomous vehicles are marching toward becoming an integral part of our lives in the not-so-distant future is an inalienable truth. Urban transportation, logistics, and parcel delivery will soon deploy all autonomous vehicles.
Still, numerous challenges and obstacles exist before it becomes a seamless – and, mainstream – part of our (especially) urban logistics.
This article focuses on highlighting key challenges and initiatives on the future of autonomous delivery.
~~~ What Is An “Autonomous Delivery Vehicle”? ~~~
A driverless car, or a self-driving car, is referred to as an “autonomous vehicle”.
- It can sense its surroundings, sense external conditions akin to a human being, and navigate/drive without human intervention.
- Software algorithms are used to develop a fully automated driving system for such vehicles.
- By logical extension, an autonomous “delivery vehicle” is a driverless vehicle that can transport and deliver goods without any human intervention.
2) What are the current challenges for AV adoption?
i) Legal: While the future (and, benefits) of autonomous delivery isn’t under any doubt, the legal framework that regulates its operations is still in its infancy and very much a work-in-process. Such regulation that mandates the operations of autonomous vehicles on public roads, with scores of humans, will undoubtedly take time.
For example, robots on pavements, or androids at low speeds traveling within marked boundaries will likely see faster regulation as compared to unmanned vehicles that travel at higher speeds.
ii) Operational challenges: Testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles have their own challenges. While they don’t need to be “test-driven” they will still require to be tested – by humans! – at all stages of progress, and deployment. This includes a forceful overtake by remote control should an emergency arise e.g. malfunction
~~~ Some AV Delivery Vehicles ~~~
- Autonomous trucks: AVs can help reduce driver shortage, poor efficiency, or delays in goods delivery
- Autonomous delivery vans: Mostly e-vehicles. Best deployed for deliveries on-road. Similar to autonomous vehicles.
- Sidewalk vehicles: Low speeds. Approx. 5-6 km per hour. Operators can assume control during emergencies.
iii) Battery usage and electricity consumption: Electrical consumption, battery usage, storage, and disposal are still very much a constraint. This has a direct impact on the scope of deliveries. For example:
- Distances that can be covered
- Availability of e-charging outlets
- Weight of the robot/vehicle, and of goods to be transported
- Type of routes e.g. going uphill requires more battery power
Next-gen batteries (e.g. sodium-ion) provide alternatives for better usage for popular autonomous vehicles like e-bikes, robots, and LMVs.
iv) Infrastructural: Urban environments (especially) present a huge challenge for autonomous vehicles. Innumerable obstacles, people, potholes, uneven surfaces, staircases, animals…
This complexity in the operations of autonomous deliveries is a genuine challenge in many aspects. As a result, AVs becoming “mainstream” is still some distance away.
v) Social: This is often an understated factor. After all, are autonomous vehicles and deliveries being accepted, or supported, by the very people whom it is supposed to benefit?
Social acceptance appears directly related to legislation. If people have confidence in the operational and legal framework of AV deployment, they will also accept it. People also worry about losing their jobs to autonomous delivery robots and vehicles.
~~~ Benefits Of Autonomous Delivery Vehicles ~~~
- Lower fuel cost, more efficient fuel consumption,
- Lower travel time
- Improved productivity
- Greater safety metrics (reduced accidents, and deaths)
- Lesser maintenance hassles, lower operating-cost
- Lowers emissions, reduces pollution
3) Autonomous Vehicles – the time has already arrived
The days of AVs being pure “something in the future” is past…driverless vehicles, delivery robots, and remote-controlled drones are now very much operational in today’s world.
Of course, this is only the beginning, and mass adoption is still some way into the future. As mentioned above, numerous technological, legislative, and social considerations remain deeply untangled.
Let’s look at some current examples:
i) Robo-taxis: There are already hundreds of driverless robo-taxis under deployment in countries like China and the US. Regulations to begin charging consumers to use the service are on the anvil.
~~~ Chinese company AutoX (funded by Alibaba) began its autonomous robo-taxi service in Shenzen in 2020. Although it has a safety driver for now, it isn’t difficult to imagine a future of AVs without one ~~~
ii) AVs in trucking: AVs aren’t just the sleek or creatively designed, bright-colored vehicles that people envision when they think of AVs!
For example, consider the trucking industry: the drivers have to endure harsh conditions along with long and arduous working hours. Labour turnover is also a huge issue. Under such a scenario, using AVs would help manage fleets and logistics.
The benefits don’t just end at improved labour, they also improve operating costs. Improved safety, nearly a 1/3rd cost reduction due to better fuel efficiency, and optimized routing are some of the other benefits.
Interstate highways (especially in the developed world) are typically less crowded, wider, and have smooth surfaces. A dedicated lane for AVs (e.g. like the high-occupancy vehicles in the USA during peak hours) isn’t too difficult to imagine…
iii) Fixed routes, geo-fenced locations: Sudden interventions from people, environmental conditions, or vehicles (e.g. fire trucks) are among the most significant barriers to overcome for AVs.
Use cases such as routes within geo-fenced areas (e.g. airports, hospital grounds, fixed routes, campuses) would possibly reduce navigation barriers. There are companies that specialize in developing AVs that are suitable for shuttles in geo-fenced locations.
iv) AVs in the logistics industry: Some areas (e.g. service areas, logistics yards) that have fixed perimeters ease out the challenges of mapping and safety.
Here, the challenges are different i.e. the performance of extremely accurate actions that logistics vehicles undertake (e.g. forklifts). As a result, their movements are strictly mandated and allow a minimum deviation. This requires human teleoperators to reduce risks to workers. However, the potential of AVs in this area is huge. Another example is snow plows that clear streets at night.
Conclusion: As is evident, autonomous delivery initiatives aren’t a figment of scientific imagination anymore. They are already here, delivering results, and constantly pushing boundaries. As we progress rapidly into the future, select last mile delivery software that seamlessly integrates such AVs.