Drones and autonomous vehicles: Can Ford’s delivery vision take flight?

As online shopping becomes the norm, retailers are casting eyes to the emissions of the fleets that transport goods around the country, but could electric and autonomous driving and drones act as a viable method to transport deliveries? Ford seems to think so.

A rise in average disposable incomes, especially in developing countries, is increasing the frequency of consumer interactions with retailers. This has, in part, been stimulated by a move away from “weekly shops”, and online shopping now allows for fewer items to be purchased more regularly when needed.

In turn, the burden being placed on logistic and delivery fleets is increasing. Data from the US Environmental Information Administration suggests that delivery vans will emit 125kg of CO2 on average. During November and December last year, an estimated 41,500 vans were operating to deliver parcels in the UK.

This fails to consider the amount of “empty journeys”, where vans aren’t at full capacity, but it does highlight the inefficiencies associated with using heavy duty vehicles to transport around predominantly urban areas to deliver individual orders.

Some companies are already taking steps to remedy delivery services, introducing new initiatives that facilitate smart cites transitions and the electrification of the transport market. “Click and collect” services already exist and the sharing economy is making in-roads into deliveries, but Amazon and Sainsbury’s are looking to go the extra mile, the last mile in fact, to cater to consumer demand.

Amazon unveiled its new ‘Flex’ initiative, which aims to significantly decrease the delivery times of orders by taking trucks off roads and getting individuals to pick up and deliver packages for up to £15 an hour. The company also plans to test how efficiently drones can deliver packages.

Sainsbury’s has also just announced that it is trialling a same-day delivery service, which could be expanded to 30 UK stores. The supermarket also revealed that 100 new ‘Click & Collect Groceries’ sites are in the pipeline for the next 12 months.

Ford’s city of tomorrow

For motor giant Ford, delivery services will form one of the operational pillars to a smart city transition. The company envisions a time where autonomous vans can transport deliveries ranging from groceries to medical supplies on the ground, before drones pick up the packages for the “final leg” of the journey.

The “City of Tomorrow” is Ford’s umbrella programme that captures concepts regarding mobility evolution and the transport sector’s role in the smart city transition. The programme has already seen electric vans and ride-sharing “chariots” introduced across multiple cities, but this week the programme explored how these transport systems can interact with drones to deliver to doorsteps.

“Ford has at its heart a culture of disruption and innovation designed to come up with solutions that put people first, to save them time, money and aggravation, and also to make our cities easier to navigate and better to live in,” Ford’s vice president for research and advanced engineering Ken Washington said.

“We are challenging ourselves to understand how people live, work and move in urban areas, to inform our research in mobility technologies and solutions.”

Ford is already working on a fully-autonomous range vehicles, including services for ride sharing and package delivery for 2021. As part of the firm’s Last Mile Mobility Challenge, which calls on employees to develop ideas to account for the last leg of a delivery, the “Autolivery” concept was introduced.

Using Virtual Reality headsets, delegates at the recent Mobile World Congress saw a glimpse of how drones and autonomous, low-emission vehicles could replace traditional delivery vans. The video showed dinner party preparations eased by the delivery of a missing ingredient, which was able to bypass congested traffic in an urban area.

Although it is still just an idea, the concept has people at Ford imagining a time where roads are converted into green spaces and zero-emission transport and drones help day-to-day city living and improve poor air quality levels.

Innovative employees

A big part of Ford’s City of Tomorrow plans is its ability to get all areas of the company on-board with innovative thinking. The company’s push for new innovation has seen a total of 4,500 employees – most of which aren’t from the R&D department – submit ideas to help push Ford beyond its CSR goals. This includes an invention which converts condensation from vehicle air conditioners into drinkable water.

The Autolivery concept was thought-up by three Shanghai-based designers and the autonomous aspect of the concept looks set to come to life. Earlier this month, Ford invested $1bn into Argo AI, an artificial intelligence system founded by former Google and Uber staff.

The five-year investment will see Argo AI provide and develop new software for Ford’s autonomous fleet, and any platforms introduced could be licensed by other motor companies in the future.

Matt Mace

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