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Editorial: Robo-deliveries – fact or fiction?


Uber is on a mission to disrupt the retail supply chain with driverless trucks, we discovered this week. Meanwhile Starship Technologies robots are taking to the streets of Europe and the US (Swiss Post is the latest to sign up to trials) to provide ‘hyper-local’ deliveries of groceries and healthcare products. Should traditional supply chain operators and the world’s delivery drivers be reaching for their coats? I’m not convinced. While the technology is being developed to make robo-deliveries possible, it’s hard to believe autonomous driving and dropping will become the norm. There are so many unknowns and impracticalities to overcome.
Are self-driving HGVs a safe alternative to manned vehicles? Won’t robots be incredibly costly to maintain? How can pavement robots navigate parked cars, stairs, high rise flats, holes, snow, thieves? In Brighton where I live, unconscious human bodies on the pavement are an everyday hazard. And from a customer service perspective, if there’s no friendly delivery guy, who’s going to knock on your door (or your neighbour’s door) and give everyone a smile?

Swiss Post robot delivery

The extensive trials involving Starship Technologies will hopefully deliver genuine feedback at some point soon. Here is the UK a government funded trial is taking place in Greenwich to test the feasibility of driverless vans on the streets. Researchers from the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) are looking into whether autonomous vans would allow companies to move to around-the-clock deliveries, which could reduce rush hour congestion because fewer vans would be needed.

So there could be benefits, and clearly there is commercial as well as government interest. The idea that some delivery vans and trucks could be replaced by small electric robots, thereby cutting carbon emissions, isn’t a bad proposition. Neither is the notion that all this technology will improve the customer experience with extra capacity to supplement the overstretched courier network. But it is hard to envisage a world where drivers are no longer needed. And let’s not forget, in courier terms, driving is only one element of the job. Can we afford to overlook all the customer service add-ons?

So I’ll keep reporting on the fascinating trials, and listening to experts in the industry to get a balanced view of the future of driverless haulage and robots in e-delivery. But I won’t be bidding farewell to my regular delivery drivers just yet. Right now it seems the e-delivery sector needs humans far more than it needs robots.

More robots
Amazon says it does need robots as our story on the new Essex fulfilment centre explains, in this case to automate its massive picking and stock movement operation. Thankfully lots of jobs for humans – 1,500 – are being created too.

Other news….

We also heard this week that DHL is bringing its Streetscooter electric vans to market next year, giving other companies the chance to snap up eco-delivery vans, while fashion players New Look and PrettyLittleThing are perfecting their delivery options, pushing for more convenience and more shopper satisfaction.

…and a Brexit view

Finally we have a must-read opinion piece from Fastlane International’s David Jinks on how Brexit might affect the cost of cross border deliveries, once (or if) tariffs are introduced. We’ll be asking industry experts to give their views on how Brexit will impact e-commerce and cross-border delivery, so if you have thoughts on this, please do get in touch.

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Image credits:

  • Starship Technologies
  • Swiss Post

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