Last-Mile Delivery Vehicles

One of the difficulties for retailers and delivery companies has always been distributing goods cost-effectively. While long-haul and regional distribution is a known challenge, the area that is usually the most difficult, or at least the most expensive, is “the last mile” – as in getting something right to the doorstep.

This often incurs the greatest cost because it’s a single, one-off, journey. Now innovative technology companies are looking into this space and are creating small autonomous multi-wheel vehicles that can contain your shopping or other purchases, and drive themselves from the regional distribution facility, right to your front door.

In this way, companies are driving the autonomous revolution by providing solutions to these problems.

What companies support self-driving logistics?

In China, Alibaba has been developing and running tests with these autonomous delivery vehicles, while in the UK Starship Technologies has been running trials with the Co-op in Milton Keynes, UK. This location was chosen as it is particularly suitable for this test as, unusually for a city, Milton Keynes has many under-road walkways that obviate the need for the robots to cross streets – which would be difficult for the robots at this stage in their development. This is because the challenges for a last-mile delivery vehicle are different to those of a fully self-driving vehicle.

An autonomous car will be trained by driving thousands of miles of roads. However, a last-mile delivery vehicle will be predominantly moving along pavements and navigating junctions with traffic lights and pedestrian crossings. Therefore, it needs to be super-smart – but in a different way to a traditional autonomous vehicle. Alibaba in China is proceeding with expanding its fleet of similar vehicles and we will watch with interest as these production-ready autonomous vehicles get closer to mass production and deployment.

Go Your Drone Way

One solution recently touted as a solution to the last-mile delivery problem are drones – as by flying they would avoid having to negotiate roads. However, while drones will play a vital role in cases such as distributing medical supplies and relief in disaster areas, more general use has faced several issues. Imagine the traffic congestion with multiple drones flying down our streets and the concerns about privacy and safety from their surround-view lenses.

Camera-equipped drones are now a common tool used in TV and filmmaking and provide dramatic aerial views that were once obtainable only by using large, noisy and expensive helicopters.

However, the complexity of flying camera drones means that they are usually flown by experienced camera-drone operators rather than the general public. Only through improvements to AI will the use of more capable drones be democratised to the general public.

As well as the emergency services and filmmaking, drones also have considerable value for roof inspections, saving the cost of scaffolding. However, again trespassing concerns and noise can lead to complaints, so while they are becoming more popular they are not yet able to fulfil the promise first touted by the likes of Amazon, which has now closed down its drone programme.

Still, we may yet see new opportunities arise from drones, with further innovations in hardware and software models, along with improved artificial intelligence, enabling drones to fly officially approved routes, without becoming a nuisance category.

By providing solutions for the last-mile delivery problem, companies are helping iron out existing barriers for self-driving cars. Other factors, such a ISO 26262 functional safety and reaching the higher levels of autonomy in self-driving cars, remain as challenges.