Technology that can move a car autonomously can also do the same for delivery vehicles. And that is exactly why this invention is important for logistics. The technology is already highly developed and the industry is working feverishly on improving the efficiency for partially autonomous series-production (!) vehicles.
At first glance, replacing the driver with modern sensors, elaborate algorithms and high-speed computers does perhaps not seem to herald a supply-chain revolution. Allow me to present some scenarios, in which this invention could bring about fundamental changes to logistics.
As well as returns, the "last mile" in particular drives logistics costs up for many eCommerce services. Driving to addresses a few hundred metres away, waiting for the customer to answer the door or, if necessary, attempting to deliver multiple times is very expensive – even though the salaries are truly not to dream about.
Now imagine if it were possible to stick to an individual order window of a quarter to half an hour for each customer for only 40 pence or less? That is exactly what self-driving cars will make possible! Self-driving cars for the last mile will be smaller than the delivery vehicles currently used and will shuttle back and forth between the customer(s) and depot more often. Delivery vehicles are currently as big as they are to make the most of the resource of the driver by having them drive to the depot only once per shift, where possible.
Basically, it is about extending the internally well-known principle of automated guided vehicles to the supply chain outside the goods distribution centre. That extension is not limited by the so called “last mile”.
In depots, small, self-driving, electric delivery vehicles will be loaded automatically, taking into account the desired delivery time slot, and will then drive autonomously to the customer. There they wait for the customer to take the goods out of the car themselves. This will allow the time and place to be easily tailored to the customer, whether it's at home, work or even before a trip to the gym.
As the costs per journey will be significantly lower with self-driving cars, new possibilities will also open up for distribution warehouses and processes. There will be a more regular flow in the distribution warehouse, thanks to smaller loads on the delivery vehicles going more often – with fewer load peaks.
Long-haul transport will also be subject to change due to self-driving lorries. The elimination of restricted driving times will, for example, lead to altered routes and frequencies – with corresponding consequences for warehouses and distribution centres.
In spite of eCommerce, we will still go to the city centre in the future to view, try and even buy products. If the costs of supplying businesses are dramatically reduced by autonomous vehicles, the need for expensive storage space in the city centre will fall and more space will be available for the customers and for presenting the goods. And what would it be like to combine shopping in the city centre with a delivery service similar to that of eCommerce? For example, what about if my shopping and I leave the shop at almost the same time, and it is waiting for me when I get home in the form of a small delivery vehicle.
The shop's warehouse in the city centre could be moved to depots on the outskirts. Then subsequent deliveries could be made from there several times a day as required. These depots could also supply the eCommerce delivery vehicles for the last mile mentioned above.
Intelligent algorithms for analysing and predicting consumer behaviour will ensure that product availability remains guaranteed in this close-knit network. Companies that have core skills in this area, such as Google or Amazon, can therefore adopt a key role in the logistics networks of the future.