When Last Mile Delivery Turns Autonomous – What are the Considerations?

As more of our lives becomes connected to networks and online services, we are finding that previously labor-intensive tasks like getting groceries or using public transportation are becoming streamlined as reservations and payments can be made online, even bringing items to your front door. But with increased connectivity comes greater expectations for faster, efficient, affordable, and secure services and deliveries.

The delivery process may seem straightforward – order your product, the seller arranges products for delivery, and the delivery service brings it to you – the actual process of getting the many different products with different supply chains together in one place, then arrange the transport going from the hub to the final destination. This portion of the trip is called “last-mile delivery” as it’s one of the trickiest parts of the supply chain process. Not only is last mile delivery the part that we as consumers often care the most about, last mile delivery accounts for around 53% of the total cost of shipping and sellers are taking less of a cut as supply chains struggle to meet demand and deadlines.

(Source: EFT)

Last mile deliveries are often inefficient because of the sheer volume of deliveries necessary with a low drop size. This means that efficiency is virtually impossible with retail sales only going up, especially with a global pandemic.

Taking care of the last-mile challenge

The supply chain management industry experts have been looking for solutions to this dilemma. Many have pointed to models that utilize digital platforms to crowdsource local services to ensure that consumers are able to get what they need. Instead of manually dispatching delivery people to make the trip, platforms will utilize machine learning and AI to quicken this process.

Another solution that many companies are already cashing in on is the concept of autonomous delivery technology, with the market expected to reach 84.72 billion USD by 2030. In order to make last-mile deliveries more efficient and truly door-to-door, development has been focused on autonomous pods, which can navigate more difficult and uneven terrain to ensure completion of delivery.

Smaller pods focus on small, dynamic designs to ensure efficiency in last-mile delivery. This allows for reduced costs in the delivery pod itself, as well as increased security as the vehicles do not actually carry human beings, allowing for more focus on the actual delivery and of the safety of those around them. Especially with the global pandemic, solutions like autonomous delivery allow for contactless service, without driving up costs. Analysts at McKinsey found that semiautonomous and autonomous technology reduce delivery costs on average by approximately 10 to 40 percent.

Autonomous delivery challenges

We can already see this crowdsourcing model mentioned in the previous section in the real world, prevalent in industries like transportation (think ride-hailing apps), food delivery, and retail apps. But this solution isn’t without challenges of its own, as local services still have a high maintenance cost, and with actual human drivers, there’s likely going to be a larger margin of error and limitations.

This is why tech industry experts say that long-term, autonomous driving technology is the answer. Autonomous vehicle technology has made great headway in the last decade – from the testbeds to public roadways — and while use cases are moving from theoretical plans to reality, there’s still a lot of doubt and logistical issues when it comes to application.

Technology and infrastructure limitations

While there are some companies who have gotten the autonomous delivery robot/pod concept to real-world application, there’s still a lot at risk in terms of how the technology works. Passenger vehicles have yet to be at a Level 4 of autonomous driving (according to the SAE regulations), so it’s not completely realistic to expect autonomous pods to be at this level. We need to be careful to ensure that the priority is placed in keeping human beings (pedestrians and vehicle passengers) safe when pods are navigating through streets.

While the technology is being developed, we also must remember that technology can’t be the only thing to change. Cities also need to ensure that current infrastructure supports the autonomous delivery movement, for example, making sure that roads are paved properly and that any obstacles like potholes or cracks are quickly repaired.

Lack of universal standards and liability regulations

To deal with the infrastructure challenges mentioned in the earlier section, there needs to be universal regulations that allow for both services and end users to use services more effortlessly across state or even country-lines.

In countries like the United States where there are differing federal and state regulations, using mobility services like last-mile deliveries with autonomous technologies can be a challenge. For example, in the state of Pennsylvania, autonomous delivery bots are allowed to maneuver their way through sidewalks as well as roadways. They are technically considered “pedestrians” meaning that the bots can move at a maximum speed of 12 miles per hour in a pedestrian area with a load limit of 550 pounds. This isn’t true for all states as some have no regulations regarding delivery systems like this, while others require permits to be issued by the state.

These technicalities can make a major difference when it comes to not only service operations, but also liability frameworks in the case of an accident. As autonomous technology has not yet been perfected, there is risk when it comes to operation no matter how safe the company deems it. A universal standard or regulation will allow for the risk to be minimized, as much as possible.

Risks of security breach

Because of the groundbreaking nature of this technology, many often focus on the issues surrounding the technology itself. However, we must remember that this technology is connected in nature, meaning that thousands of messages containing data are being exchanged each second in each vehicle. With data like PII, vehicle data, as well as access points to connected devices, a successful breach can be a goldmine for malicious actors.

While autonomous delivery vehicles like pods or robots do not carry any passengers, the personal data that they carry, their operations on pedestrian sidewalks, as well as the close nature of door-to-door delivery still carries implications that we must consider before application.

Short and long-term solutions for autonomous delivery

The technology for autonomous delivery bots will continue to progress. But how quickly this happens depends on other factors. In the long run, standards and regulations will have to be made by legislators and committees, which will influence new infrastructure that will enable this kind of technology to have more widespread adoption.

In the short-term, however, both manufacturers of these pods as well as service providers can prioritize security like authentication and encryption, ensuring that the data stays private. Security solutions can be built into the chipsets in the manufacturing stage, protecting data privacy before vehicles, and pods, hit the road. Solutions like these can ensure that vehicles of all sizes protect not just the items carried inside, but also those around them.

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