According to a 2016 report, the last-mile delivery fleets currently enabling our nation’s obsession with online shopping will eventually be replaced by autonomous ground vehicles (AGVs), lockers and drone distribution. However, as van manufacturers are aware, these technologies won’t magically appear in the immediate future. |
New ideas to increase efficiency without increasing the number of vans on already crowded roads, especially in urban areas, are essential to keeping the industry moving forwards. Mercedes Benz’s van of the future, the Vision Van, is a demonstration of what last-mile delivery could look like in the near future.
The Vision Van
This van of the future has plenty of futuristic features. Looking like a cross between a van and a spaceship, the vehicle has roof-mounted drones, electric drive, joystick control and a fully automated cargo space which is loaded in the depot as a single piece. The whole is looked after by an on-board robot. Some of these features, such as joystick control, are a long way from being used on roads. Others, such as drones, are already in trials.
The Tech to Watch
• Drones: Mercedes’s drone partner, Matternet, has been allowed to use them to fly lab samples autonomously between two hospitals in Lugano and is trialling drone use with the Swiss Post.
• Route-Planning Software: This is an area Mercedes believes is underdeveloped. A system able to plan a route with multiple stops must link the routing software to a warehouse system.
• Automated Loading System: Inserting shelves into the van pre-loaded could reduce depot downtime time from an hour and a half to just five minutes.
• Robotised Cargo Space: The driver wouldn’t need to go into the cargo space; instead the correct package would be placed in a hatch at each destination ready for the driver to make a manual delivery.
Is the Future Already Here?
Mercedes is trialling much of its new technology as we speak and there are logistics companies already using cutting-edge technology. The delivery company UPS uses alternative fuels for its fleets. At the 2017 Advanced Clean Transportation Expo held in California it showcased a world first, a hydrogen-electric delivery truck. It might sound futuristic, but a fleet of these vehicles with fuel-cells, lithium-ion battery packs and hydrogen tanks is to be deployed next year.
For those in the shipment industry there will be mixed feelings about the possibilities of driverless technology. Though it could increase profit and efficiency it could lead to job losses. However, Mercedes says they are not currently developing driverless delivery vans but are thinking creatively of ways in which this technology could be used in a van of the future. For example, vans could move autonomously from the depot to the delivery district to be joined there by the driver, or could move around the depot from a charging station to the loading bay alone.
It seems as though the van of the future is not as far away as we might have thought. Of course, no matter how sleek or shiny these new gadgets are, in a commercial industry they must make money. Only time will tell whether drones and robots will truly change the face of last-mile delivery.
Norman Dulwich is a correspondent for Courier Exchange, the world's largest neutral trading hub for same day courier jobs in the express freight exchange industry. Connecting professionals across the UK and Europe through their website, Courier Exchange provides a valuable service, updating members with the latest information on issues affecting road safety, fuel costs, technology, visions for the van of the future and other news from the industry. Over 4,500 transport exchange businesses are networked together through their website, trading jobs and capacity in a safe 'wholesale' environment.
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