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Google enters last mile fight with autonomous delivery trucks


Google is the latest big name from the tech world to set its sights on final mile delivery domination.
According to a patent granted to Google in the US, Google may be pressing ahead with the development of driverless vehicles made up of secure parcel lockers. The trucks will send SMS notifications to customers when their parcels are ready to be collected, and retrieved from the roadside via the lockers, which could be opened using a PIN, an NFC enabled device, or by swiping a card.

The driverless trucks will be able to constantly update and notify customers in the event of delays caused by events such as bad weather, traffic jams, road closures and so on. The phenomenon of the Google-powered autonomous vehicle is not particularly new, and although there are still many sceptics on the subject of driverless cars, there is a clear commitment – not just from Google but from the auto industry generally – to incorporate autonomy into cars to a greater or lesser extent.

640px-Google_self_driving_car_at_the_GoogleplexAlready some cars will alert the driver by way of alarm noises if they are too close to the car in front, or if they are drifting into another lane, or appear to be falling asleep while driving. There are even sensors fitted to commercially available cars now that will prohibit lane changing at high speed, such as on busy motorways, if other vehicles are detected nearby – effectively over-ruling the driver.

In the case of the Google patent, what isn’t clear is the extent to which Google sees itself playing a direct role in the delivery of parcels and packages, in the way Amazon does. It may be that it is developing a technology to sell to others in the industry, or it could be the patent is merely a way of making it harder for others to follow suit with similar initiatives.

An abstract from the patent describes a “An autonomous road vehicle is operative to receive destination information, and to drive to a destination based on the destination information. A package securing subsystem is attached to the autonomous road vehicle and comprises at least one securable compartment.” You can view the patent document in full here.

The autonomous delivery patent was invented by Jussi Myllymaki, according to the US Patent registration. Myllymaki is retired and lives in Helsinki; he was a software engineer at Google for around 10 years, and has written a number of patents including a system for ‘communication of information that has particular significance to a specific location only to those individuals that are at or near that geo-spatial location’, a method for allowing client applications to programmatically access websites, and an anti-tracking system for consumer privacy.

The eDelivery view

There’s a certain amount of credibility hardwired into the speculation that surrounds Amazon’s supposed plans to become a fully functioning carrier in its own right. After all, delivery is at the heart of an ecommerce retailer’s very nature. You can add into that the idea that Amazon is less-than-delighted with the service and cost elements of its relationships with its fulfilment partners and quickly build a very convincing argument as to why Amazon is readying itself to go head-to-head with the rest of the delivery industry.

But Google..? It’s far harder to see how immersing itself in the sometimes murky waters of delivery fits into the Google/Alphabet strategy. Yet Google has invested heavily in driverless technology, not to mention StreetView, its comprehensive maps, and Google Earth – which give it a wealth of location data to weave into its car developments. Which is why it’s a safer bet to expect to see Google as a provider of technology – an enabler – that will allow retailers and carriers to embrace the brave new world of driverless vehicles without all the R&D associated. Your shopping is more likely to be delivered by a driverless van powered by Google but branded and operated by a more familiar carrier name, than delivered in a vehicle displaying the Google livery.

Everyone in the retail fulfilment space understands the importance of the final mile, and the challenges relating to it. But that awareness is only lately spreading to other sectors and categories; you should expect that to change soon though.

The ability to execute efficiently across every part of the value chain is only going to increase in visibility within the next five years, and within that timeframe you can expect last mile capability to become not just a competitive differentiator but something that is viewed very much as a business asset.

It will be one of the important considerations by which etailers and carriers will be evaluated by a range of stakeholders – from customers and partners, through to investors and potential acquirers. You only need look at the current Sainsbury’s / Argos situation to see that in action.

The demand for slick, cost-effective, and appealing final mile solutions is not about to slump. Those developing, designing, and offering such solutions could have the power to determine who succeeds in the long term battle on this new front line of retail.

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