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Automation of urban deliveries debated


Autonomous vehicles and drones could aid the last mile delivery of goods in urban areas but are not yet ready to be deployed widely, speakers at a conference concluded last week.

The event organised by ITS (UK)’s Freight Interest Group focused on the topic ‘Preventing an urban delivery crisis – jointly meeting business and customer needs and social and environmental challenges’.

When asked about applications of autonomous vehicles logistics fleet operator Gnewt Cargo’s director Sam Clarke commented that the technology could perhaps be used as a ‘mobile depot’ for delivery workers.

“What we are discovering through data analysis is that our drivers actually spend about 60% of their time on foot,” he said. He therefore suggested that an autonomous vehicle could in future follow the driver around, to an extent, to improve delivery efficiency.

“That is as close to autonomy in the logistics world as I could see happening,” he concluded.

However professor Mike Browne of the University of Gothenburg urged caution and pointed out that it is not yet known if autonomous vehicles will have the effect of increasing or decreasing congestion in cities.

“One of the consequences of making travel cheaper and more convenient is that it typically encourages us to consume more. Will the introduction of autonomous vehicles lead to more kilometres travelled in the city?” he questioned.

Meanwhile speakers were divided on the issue of drones and an audience poll revealed that just over half believe more than 5% of deliveries will be made by robot or drone in London by 2031.

Professor Tom Cherrett of the University of Southampton said: “I don’t think anything will be landing on our driveways with a package in the near future. The technology is there and it works but there are still so many issues when it comes to the legal and regulatory aspects.”

Post Office head of proposition and strategy Tom Wasilewski added: “I worry that the appetite for drone and autonomous vehicle accidents will hold back their development.”

However IMRG chairman and founder James Roper was more positive about the concept of deliveries by drones. “I think the market will divide. It may be difficult to get your washing machine delivered to a flat, but drones have a future.”