Are self-driving trucks and drones the future of home deliveries?

When it comes to deliveries, we rarely spend time considering how crucial supplies arrive at their destination — until they don’t. “People don’t think about freight and logistics until something doesn’t arrive,” notes Natalie Chapman, head of urban policy at the Freight Transport Association. “The rest of the time it just happens, which I see as a sign of the success of how usually things work really well.” The UK’s freight system — the way we transport goods by road, rail, land and sea — is central to the smooth running of the nation.

But its impact on the environment is also undeniable. According to a report last year by the National Infrastructure Commission advisory body, the movement of freight by road and rail normally accounts for 6 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Unless curbed, this may rise to 20 per cent of allowed emissions by 2050.

“Sustainability is an essential issue for logistics, especially when it comes to lowering carbon emissions,” explains Robert Keen, director-general of the British International Freight Association. “It must be incorporated [into] corporate strategies, because clients all over the world are increasingly demanding more environmentally-friendly logistics — but this desire comes with a cost.” With the Government’s net zero emissions target set for the year 2050, the UK’s freight industry faces a challenge: how to maintain performance while achieving decarbonisation.

The next 10 years will be crucial when it comes to finding a solution.

Heavy goods vehicles

(Andy Potts)

In 2018, heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) registered in Great Britain travelled 18.7 billion kilometres of road while transporting domestic freight, so when it comes to tackling decarbonisation, HGVs are a good place to start — although not necessarily the easiest. “Going to zero emissions with HGVs may not be possible within the next 10 years,” Chapman acknowledges. “But what are the stepping stones to that?” The development of electric HGVs is one area of interest — it is also problematic. Battery weight is a real issue.

HGVs need to cover long distances, and therefore require large batteries. This is what makes them different from other large electric vehicles, such as buses, which only need to travel relatively short distances before recharging, meaning their batteries can be lighter. “It’s a challenge of battery and payloads,” Chapman says. “You could end up filling the whole vehicle with batteries and have no payload left to carry the goods.”

Bridget Rosewell, commissioner for the National Infrastructure Commission, agrees that this is an issue. “Tesla say they’ve cracked this [the launch of the all-electric heavy-duty Tesla Semi truck is expected this year] but nobody else is really convinced yet,” she says. Rosewell wonders if there will be electric options for HGVs or whether it’s more likely that we’ll look to hydrogen-fuelled vehicles.

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Hydrogen-fuelled vehicles are similar to electric vehicles (EVs) in that they require electricity to operate and, water vapour aside, produce no emissions. But while EVs rely on batteries with extensive charging times, hydrogen-fuelled vehicles can be refilled in a matter of minutes.

Might that mean they become ubiquitous by 2030? As things stand, a lack of fuelling facilities might make that difficult. “What [does] the hydrogen network look like for refuelling those vehicles? That’s the bit that hasn’t really [been worked] out yet,” Rosewell says.

What we are more likely to see is the emergence of semi-autonomous and autonomous trucks. Already Waymo (formerly the Google Self-Driving Car Project) is testing its long-haul driverless truck in California and Arizona, while Mercedes is working on the development of its autonomous Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025. Automation might be total, or designed so that drivers will control vehicles when they are travelling off the motorway but automised systems will take over on motorways, freeing drivers up for other work such as trip planning.

Trials are continuing. On motorways, automated vehicles could prove both economically and environmentally beneficial: travelling in convoy, they can be programmed to drive close together, so trucks following in the leader’s slipstream use less fuel and release fewer emissions. It is also conceivable that the next 10 years will see developments in the transportation of rail, sea and air freight.

These may include electrification of railways and incorporating biofuels into aviation, but any dramatic changes are likely to occur over a longer timeframe.

Electric deliveries

Where significant transformation can be expected, however, is at the other end of the supply chain — with deliveries. This year alone, delivery service DPD announced it was upping its electric fleet to 600 vehicles, while global logistics company UPS revealed it was ordering 10,000 electric delivery vans from London start-up Arrival. By 2030, it is reasonable to expect that EVs will be commonly used for deliveries, so long as their requirements can be catered for.

As Bridget Rosewell explains, the key is for cities to ensure that EV depots have the right electricity supply and are in the right places. It’s about “recognition in the planning system” she says, and “thinking about that alongside housing regeneration, for example”.

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Electric cargo bikes may also take on a more significant role. Already courier firm E-cargobikes.com delivers for some London Co-op stores, and is proving a useful resource during lockdown — as is e-bike service Zedify, which offers services to nine locations around England.

It’s also possible we’ll see self-driving vans on the roads within the next decade, although problems with AI and recognition accuracy are slowing progress. “It’s taking longer than it could have done to get these things into widespread production,” says futurist Dr Ian Pearson. “But it will come.” “We’ll see a lot more automation and a lot more comfort with robotics,” argues technology expert Sophie Hackford, co-founder of data and AI start-up 1715 Labs.

Hackford suggests that Covid-19 might mean that some technologies progress more quickly than they otherwise might have done. “There’s a hygiene element to automation that will become a lot more attractive,” she says. “We’ve recognised an additional layer of complexity and risk to our society. The hygiene benefits of automation — in farms, factories and online delivery — will be a new consideration since coronavirus, both for workers and consumer comfort.”

Delivery by drone

We can also expect to see the use of drones — both unmanned aerial vehicles and autonomous robots — performing delivery services, Hackford says.

Not necessarily for the last mile of delivery, but perhaps for the last 25 metres, which can be difficult for vehicles (driverless or manned) to reach.

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Doubtless, there will be issues. Pearson predicts that the potential for drone vandalism and delivery theft could prevent the adoption of drones in some residential areas. He says drones are more likely to deliver supplies to organisations like hospitals — places where there are secure delivery bays, and health and safety measures in place.

There is also the matter of drone air traffic control to consider. “It’s still very sci-fi when it comes to what that is going to look and feel like,” Hackford says. “Will there be ‘no fly zones’ in parts of cities, for instance? It’s still very early days. But coronavirus gives us the opportunity and the impetus to experiment now.”

Fresh air

While the services provided by logistics and distribution are, to many, invisible, if transportation does move significantly towards the electric and automated, this may noticeably impact consumers and businesses.

It’s possible, for instance, that with the advent of drones, and self-driving trucks operating closer together, congestion on roads and motorways will decline. There are also likely to be greater delivery options available. But there will also be financial implications.

“The investment needed will make delivery more expensive,” Rosewell warns. “And so there will be some need to recoup that in some way, shape or form. “Either your Amazon Prime subscription will go up, or the delivery charges will increase, or you’ll have to do more of the delivery part yourself — going to collect items from somewhere.” The caveat to this, of course, is the unknown impact of the pandemic. “Covid-19 pretty much changes the whole game,” Pearson says. “You cannot really see how much the distribution industry is going to change until we know how much the economy will be affected.”

What is more certain, however, is that any shift towards zero emissions transportation is likely to affect air quality for the better. “It’s much more efficient and environmentally friendly to generate electricity in a power station and distribute it to electric vehicles than it is to have a little power station at the back of every single car, pumping out CO2,” Hackford says.

With air pollution falling considerably in cities over lockdown, the country has had a taste of what a considerable reduction in pollution might mean for the air we breathe.

More about: | Future London Clean Air | Future London | freight | Deliveries | couriers | Drones | self driving trucks

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