Another wave of automation is coming to the trucking and package delivery industry; the impact could be significant in terms of shipping costs, safety and employment. This wave has been known and written about for over 5 years. As each year passes, the actualization of these technologies becomes more certain and major manufacturers are in the process of extensive testing. Here are some of the major breakthroughs to watch out for.
Amazon is preparing to utilize drones, (pilotless aircrafts) for delivering packages. The belief is that this technology could cut delivery times to a matter of hours. The technology is already here and being used. Drones are fairly inexpensive and very reliable. Amazon has been working on this program since 2011. Drones could provide a major transformation for e-commerce so that the ever impatient consumer can realize the same “instant” gratification for purchasing on a website that they now get from brick and mortar retail stores.
The biggest hold up for drone delivery is the US government. There are significant concerns regarding drones impact on safety and air traffic control. The FAA currently has restricted the use of drones for package deliveries and is working on upgrading regulations to include all facets of drone activity. Drones have already caused problems with air traffic, so the FAA is not anxious to add to those problems. Many believe that while drone delivery of packages could be made 100% safe, it could be years before the US Government removes restrictions. Source.
Self Driving Semi Trucks
Actual road testing is now being done by Daimler in Nevada, and both the state of Nevada and Daimler agree that the technology is working extremely well. Currently driverless trucks are being used for mining operations in Australia and Chili. The first wave of self -driving trucks that hit the road will not be without a human driver. The truck will be self-driving over long hauls on highways, but the driver will take over in cities. Also the truck will sense poor driving conditions due to weather, construction or accidents and alert the human driver to take over the controls.
At some point Self driving semi trucks will become completely driverless, but that will be a ways off as the automotive industry tends to be very conservative in bringing out new technology.
Safety and cost are a huge motivation for self driving semi trucks. There is an ever increasing shortage of drivers that is driving trucker’s salaries up and already restricting some flexibility trucking firms need to efficiently operate. In 2012, 330,000 semi trucks were involved in crashes resulting in 4000 fatalities, most of these were caused by driver error. Source.
Google was awarded a patent on February 9th that suggests that Google is developing self driving delivery vans. Since Google has developed and is currently testing self driving cars, it does not seem that farfetched that they would extend that technology to package delivery. The self driving vehicle technology is essentially already developed by Google, what the patent outlines are methods to handle deliver the package itself. In addition to driving to the correct destination, the system would need to bring the package to the destination through a smart handling system and robotics. Source.
The potential benefit from all these technologies (drones, self-driving semis and delivery vans) could greatly improve safety, reliability and reduce the cost of packaging delivery. On the down side, there are fears of massive job losses in the trucking industry as well as supporting functions. It has been estimated that there are 3.5 million truckers and 5.2 million more jobs associated with supporting the trucking industry. Source. It is doubtful that these changes will occur overnight, so while there are a lot of job loss potential, it should be noted that the biggest chunk of truck drivers are baby boomers heading into retirement. Also, while new technology does eliminate jobs, it also creates jobs that are often safer and higher paying.