Rush Delivery: On The Road (Part 3 of 3)

Last week I covered the various companies who are seeking to use aerial drones to deliver goods to your door. Today, in the third part to my series on delivery (you’ll find Part 1 here, and an even earlier post on delivery, from December of 2018, here), I’m going to look at recent proposals to use automated vehicles to deliver consumer goods.

As an introduction, I’m going to include a paragraph from that December 2018 post as an introduction to some of the ways automated vehicles are being used to make deliveries :

The potential for CAVs as delivery vehicles is already being tested by companies like Domino’s and Kroger, among others. Earlier this year Toyota announced delivery partnerships with Amazon and Pizza Hut, and Waymo’s CEO recently highlighted it as an area of opportunity.  This week the New York Times profiled Nuro, the start-up working with Kroger to test robotic delivery cars in Scottsdale, Ariz. Nuro’s vehicles are designed in-house, and look like “toasters-on-wheels,” and are currently followed everywhere they go by human safety drivers in conventionally driven “shadow car.” When the vehicle stops for a delivery, customers enter a PIN code into a small touch pad to open the compartment containing their order. The current charge for same-day delivery using the system is around $6. Ford has also flagged the delivery market as an area they’d like to explore, citing projections that by 2026 the last-mile delivery market for CAVs will hit $130 billion.

Don’t Forget to Tip Your (Robotic) Delivery Driver – Dec. 21, 2018

Since that post, Domino’s has announced a partnership with Nuro as well, with plans to test in Houston at some point this year. Walmart has also jumped in on the action – partnering with another AV developer, Gatik. For now Walmart’s test is limited to a 2-mile route between two of their stores in the company’s hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas. Why the interest? In part because of the potential cost savings – a recent Ford estimate calculates AVs could reduce the cost per mile for deliveries from $2.50 to $1. No doubt the combination of lower costs and ever-greater demand for delivery is a powerful motivator, pushing companies to explore not only AVs, but also drones and delivery bots, as discussed in Parts I and II of this series.

Beyond last-mile deliveries, there is a great deal of interest in automating semi-trucks and other large delivery vehicles. One company, TuSimple, is working with both the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and UPS to move packages between cities. Interestingly, in UPS’ case, the company only announced the partnership after TuSimple had already been delivering goods for months – which seems to indicate the program is not just a grab for positive PR. The USPS’ test was more limited, running for two-weeks and five round trips. All of the trips included a safety driver and an engineer, and both tests were carried out in the Southwest. Meanwhile, in Sweden, a completely driverless electric truck was deployed in May, a global first. Given a nation-wide shortage of truck drivers (a recent estimate puts the U.S. deficit at roughly 60,000 drivers), automated trucks present a solution that doesn’t overly disrupt a truck-heavy commercial delivery system.

But what would the wide-spread adoption of AVs as part of the delivery ecosystem mean? We can already see that the demand for faster and faster delivery is taking its toll. Recently, the NY Times and Buzzfeed News both published articles detailing the human cost of Amazon’s push for same or next-day delivery. Under-trained drivers pushed to the limit have killed people in seemingly avoidable accidents that don’t often happen with more highly-trained delivery drivers (like those used by the USPS, UPS, and FedEx). Amazon has avoided liability by using a number of third-party companies as contractors, making those companies, and not Amazon, responsible for accidents. AVs would certainly be safer for the public, as they wouldn’t fall prey to the pressures of human drivers, though that does nothing to alleviate the pressures on the human delivery people, who would still be needed to move goods from the vehicle to a door. At the same time, Amazon may continue to escape liability, if the AVs remain owned by third parties. There is also the greater question of the environmental impact of the growing number of delivery vehicles on the road (not to mention the waste created by packing materials and shipping boxes). I’ll leave a greater discussion about those issues to future posts and other forums, but those questions, among so many others (privacy, cybersecurity, and traffic management among them) are important to consider as automated delivery vehicles of all kinds begin to fill our streets and skies.

P.S. – In a follow up to last week’s blog, the USPS has stated to investigate the use of aerial drones, and is now seeking information from drone operators and developers.