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How Autonomous Delivery Could Change How You Ship

April 6, 2018 Courier

autonomous delivery
autonomous delivery

Well, it turns out Back to the Future was wrong. 2015 didn’t bring hoverboards or flying cars. But 2018 may just bring self-driving vehicles. In particular, you might start seeing autonomous delivery vehicles – delivery vans and trucks that don’t require a human driver – show up in your neighborhood. Autonomous delivery has the potential to transform future of the shipping world. So who’s working on developing these things, and just what does this future look like?

Autonomous Delivery Vans

There are two companies currently in the process of developing autonomous delivery vans: Udely and Nuro. Udely, a startup out of northern California, has begun delivering groceries from local stores in what are known as “last-mile deliveries.” Essentially, these are short-distance, local deliveries, such as from nearby grocery stores or dry cleaners. These trucks are fully electric, can carry 700 lbs worth of groceries in 18 individually-locked compartments, and can make about 40 deliveries before needing to be recharged.

When one of the bright orange Udely trucks gets close to a customer’s house, it sends a notification to the customer’s phone. The recipient can then use a smartphone app to unlock the compartment their groceries are stored in. They retrieve their food, and the truck heads off on its own to its next delivery stop.

Nuro, a startup operating out of Silicone Valley, has a similar idea in development. Their delivery vans are about the length of an SUV, but only about three and a half feet wide and a fraction of the weight. They can carry up to 250 lbs and are being used to deliver groceries, as well as dry cleaning, Amazon packages, and more.

Going the Distance

Although Udely and Nuro’s developments are focused on short-distance, “last-mile” deliveries, other companies are working in implementing autonomous delivery technology in longer hauls – specifically eighteen-wheelers. Daimler, a big rig giant, is working on developing a fleet of self-driving trucks that will be able to make cross-country hauling much less grueling. These trucks use cameras and various other sensors to “see” lane markings, calculate speed, account for and predict potential actions of surrounding vehicles, and control speed, braking, and steering to ensure optimum safety and efficiency.

Since these trucks only need to “rest” when they’re being refueled, they will be able to operate continuously. Furthermore, because self-driving trucks won’t have to leave space for human error – in this case, quite literally – the trucks will be able to drive closer together, an estimated 50 feet between vehicles, rather than the current 165-foot standard. This helps to improve aerodynamics for the vehicles, improving gas efficiency and reducing wear and tear on the vehicles.

The trucking industry is currently experiencing a shortage of drivers. With the demands of the job and the low wages, it isn’t as appealing a career as it once might have been. Self-driving trucks might be the answer.

What Are the Risks?

For a lot of people, the idea of turning over control of a several-ton vehicle to a computer with almost no capacity to reasonably react to the unexpected is a terrifying prospect. There’s a lot to be said for human instinct, and while a computer may be able to react much more quickly than a person, it also has no ability to independently problem solve.

Something as simple as construction along a planned route, an inconvenience that a human driver would be able to navigate with a minimum problem, can completely hang up a self-driving vehicle. Then, on the flip side, you do have to account for human error when dealing with self-driving vehicles – in this case, the other drivers on the road. An autonomous delivery van might be able to “see” a cyclist or another car, but if the driver of that vehicle does something unexpected, it could cause a wreck.

Udely and Nuro are taking steps to counteract these problems. For one thing, their vehicles are lighter. The Nuro vans weigh only 1,500 lbs, less than half of what an average car weighs. They also move slower, both to ensure plenty of reaction time for the computer and to minimize the severity of a potential crash.

Finally, most states currently require all self-driving vehicles to have a human “safety driver” at all times, so that if the vehicle does encounter a situation the computer is unprepared to handle, the driver can take over. Even in autonomous delivery vehicles that have no space for a human driver, remote control systems are in place that allow supervisors to take over and remotely drive the van.

Impact on Deliveries

Autonomous delivery vehicles have the potential to revolutionize the delivery industry. For one thing, they’re significantly cheaper. It is estimated that a delivery made by a self-driving van can cost as little as 5 cents per mile. This means you can save on shipping costs.

As it turns out, autonomous delivery vehicles don’t mind working long or irregular hours – take Daimler’s self-driving trucks. So not only could deliveries potentially be made faster, they can be made during ideal traffic times rather than at rush hours.

Lastly, as the technology improves, self-driving vehicles will likely become safer than human drivers. Decreasing risk of a crash is a good thing, no matter whose perspective you’re talking from.

Still In the Works

Although autonomous delivery technology is developing fast, it’ll still be a few years before it’s commonplace. Both Udely and Noro are still in the development and testing phases of their products, as is Daimler. Daimler estimates it will be at least 10 years before their self-driving trucks are on the roads. Udely and Noro are currently serving small areas of customers, and are looking to expand, but it’s likely to be another decade before we see self-driving passenger cars on the road.

For now, deliveries are still firmly in the hands of humans. If you need something shipped, contact us. They make scheduling a pickup easy, and they provide a number of courier services, including rush, air freight, refrigerated, and last-mile delivery, as well as warehousing services.