Driverless vans, drones, and the next phase of automated deliveries
Do you remember the futuristic movies that showed us what daily life might look like 50 to 100 years from now: the autonomous cars in Minority Report or the drone deliveries and parachuting packages in The Hunger Games? Well, you might be surprised to learn these formerly futuristic movie effects are slowly but surely becoming our reality.
Drones, driverless vans, delivery bots, and other futuristic technologies have the potential to make a great impact on us day-to-day, making life easier, more immediate, and perhaps even healthier. From less congestion on the roads to real-time deliveries, this would be the new normal for our society.
This stunning transformation has been propelled by overwhelming consumer demand. Recent studies find that consumer spending on on-demand services currently tops $57 billion. And it continues to grow, with new products and services popping up every day as entrepreneurs scramble to capitalize on society’s desire for convenience.
With that said, these new technologies — which have not yet been fully tested — have more than a few inherent risks. Some of these risks are related to the technological breakthrough itself: for example, the safety of a delivery drone or the decision-making capabilities of the single autonomous car. The recent traffic fatality involving a self-driving Tesla prompted additional testing and scrutiny almost immediately. But some of these concerns, the ones we should be thinking about sooner rather than later, relate to the deployment of these technologies once they are proven safe. Before they can become commonplace, live operational testing is mandatory to ensure we can deploy these technologies without ending up with a sky overfilled with drones or roads congested with driverless cars — a scenario that could completely erode the potential benefits from these technologies.
To do this and do it right, we need to start thinking about a higher-level network of drones and driverless vehicles. This means taking a look at how they should be deployed, managed, and used so that not only individual consumers benefit from these technologies, but society does as well. We need to think strategically about which services are implanted where.
Delivering to a remote location near you
While our cities suffer the most from road congestion, automation can produce significant value in suburbs and remote areas where population is sparser. In these areas, delivery drones and driverless vans can create greater efficiencies and bring a level of service traditionally missing due to location and economics.
For example, it does not make economic or practical sense to send a driver with a car on a two-hour drive to deliver a single package in a rural community, burning through the driver’s time and gas and wearing down the delivery vehicle. The four-hour time frame in itself would take half a workday for a single package, making it a losing proposition. Alternatively, deliveries could be scheduled on a weekly basis, but that solution would greatly diminish the whole concept of “on demand” that consumers have come to expect. To solve this problem, companies like UPS and Mercedes are testing a self-driving van and drone combination for the ultimate solution to the rural delivery challenge. Tying in drone deliveries will bring increased on-demand services to rural areas, along with providing the best R&D environment for drone deployment.
Outside of on-demand deliveries, rural areas will also see an increase in autonomous trucks and vans hauling goods long distance — similar to Uber’s successful cross-Colorado beer delivery. Once they reach a metro hub, these long-haul autonomous vehicles will transport their cargo to depots on the outskirts of cities, like Amazon’s new cargo hub in Kentucky, where workers will then transfer the shipments to smaller delivery bots or drones and complete the “last mile.”
Rural versus urban solutions
Meanwhile, and contrary to popular belief, metro hubs likely won’t be the first to see autonomous trucks or vans delivering goods. Since congestion and parking are still two big issues in the city, using a driverless vehicle isn’t a solution. In fact, it could create even more problems.
Instead, delivery of Amazon purchases or restaurant orders in dense cities will be done through small bots and sidewalk-based drones, alleviating traffic by minimizing the number of delivery vehicles. A small bot makes a lot of sense in an urban area, as long as it can maneuver the sidewalks of Manhattan or San Francisco with ease and without much risk to its surroundings. Just imagine, your pizza could be delivered by a sidewalk bot soon. Want proof? Five states — Wisconsin, Idaho, Virginia, Florida, and Ohio — recently passed legislation making delivery bots legal on city sidewalks.
Taking both the rural and metro next-gen tech implementations into account, rural areas seem ripe for massive innovation, trials, and change. I myself live in a more rural area, and there are significantly fewer cars on the roads, fewer houses in any given area, no high rises, and a lot more open space. This means lower risk for companies trying new delivery methods and technologies. Think about it: Would we rather have a drone flying over a dense neighborhood with playgrounds and schools underneath or in a more secluded area covered in farmland? Take, for example, the recent news about Amazon’s patent applications for a drone delivery tower and packages parachuting down to the receiver. With the cool factor (and resemblance to parachute deliveries to Katniss in The Hunger Games) aside, it would probably be more appropriate to test dropping packages or launching drones from a massive hive in an area with 5-acre homesteads than in a dense townhome community.
While the debate for exactly how smart cities will unfold in the not-so-distant future continues, one thing is certain: Next-gen technologies are not only cool and efficient, they will connect rural and urban areas, providing a higher quality of life for residents of both — ensuring communities are truly “smart.” Businesses will be able to provide efficient, low-cost on-demand rapid services at all times (even in rural areas) and with fewer restrictions. In turn, consumers will be able to get an increased level of service. People may find themselves significantly changing their buying patterns and buying more, simply because they can, which increases business.
Roei Ganzarski is the CEO of BoldIQ, a transportation service company.