Signed, Sealed & Autonomously Delivered

Autonomous delivery businesses battle it out

Ordering something online and getting it delivered to your door is nothing new. Unless you’re out of the house, you expect to receive the parcel from a delivery driver, or from a receptionist at a post depot. What you perhaps wouldn’t expect is to collect your purchases out of a little pod, attached to the back of a van with no driver. As strange as this might sound, it’s exactly what happened in Greenwich last month. Instead of signing for packages, customers were visited by an autonomous van called CargoPod. The van, full of miscellaneous grocery orders, made its way around the London borough, stopping off at customers’ doors and alerting them via their smartphones. So, whilst self driving vehicles may be the next big thing in transportation, it’s definitely not just people they’re carting from A to B. It looks like the days of the postie could be numbered. . .  but exactly how will automated deliveries change courier services, and which other industries could make use of the technology?

Can automated courier services really deliver?
Although the CargoPod represents a proof of concept rather than a fully fledged service, its grocery deliveries have given consumers a taste of what’s to come. The vehicle was designed by Oxbotica, a University of Oxford spin off with a focus on self drive technology. It uses Ocado’s delivery data and infrastructure to follow a preplanned route, distributing non-perishable goods. The recent trial was carried out to collect valuable data about unpredictable events on the road, and build more intelligent software. Although CargoPod’s excursion only lasted for 10 days, it arguably showed more promise than previous similar attempts. Amazon Prime Air, for example, is undoubtedly fast but limited to lightweight deliveries. Other services, like Starship Technology’s takeaway delivery bots, are painfully slow. CargoPod’s venture into South East London is a reminder that autonomous deliveries are still under rapid development. And with a reported 2.8 billion parcels delivered in the UK alone last year, there’s clearly scope for expansion.

How will automation disrupt deliveries?
Oxbotica’s CargoPod trial is a clear challenge to existing services like Amazon Prime Air, but what does this mean for other players in the industry? Autonomous delivery services certainly have their merits, sending orders to the customer in record time and without the need to pay wages, correct lost drivers or lose time to particularly chatty recipients. In fact, ferrying objects and passengers could be done simultaneously in multipurpose vehicles, decreasing the number of cars, vans and trucks on the road. The implications of this appear to be largely positive, improving all round efficiency and customer satisfaction. At the end of the day, buyers want to receive the items they pay for. If this can be done with less hassle and more reliability, then it’s beneficial for both them and the company they buy from. On the other hand, not having a human driver could be problematic. If an order is damaged or incomplete, customers could become apathetic if their questions are not immediately answered. Of course, a fully fledged service would be installed with customer service systems, but there’s something reassuring about airing your grievance to a physical, tangible person. There’s also the ever present concern of mass unemployment, which follows automation wherever it goes. As AI encompasses more and more of customer services, it’s not impossible to imagine a world in which talking to a human representative would be a special privilege.

The CargoPod represents a snap shot of how products will reach customers in years to come. Instead of sending fleets of drivers out to navigate the roads, companies could turn to self drive tech to cut valuable corners in logistics management. But as much as they could save time, money and energy, there are some serious roadblocks in the way. The CargoPod, and other forms of autonomous delivery, aren’t ready to deal with congested areas, can only carry limited loads, and are meticulously monitored by human operatives. There’s a long way to go before seamless self drive deliveries become a reality. Despite this, numerous companies are heavily invested in making these services work. It’s anyone’s guess as to when they’ll be ready for the mass market, but we can safely assume that CargoPod’s next outing will last much longer than a matter of days.

Can Amazon Prime Air compete with new delivery methods? What other services or industries could adopt autonomous courier technology? Will autonomous passenger vehicles and delivery vehicles eventually merge together? Share your thoughts and opinions.