The Drive Towards Smarter Logistics

Thinking Highways
By Thinking Highways January 11, 2018 12:04

The Drive Towards Smarter Logistics

Will the UK Government’s investment in autonomous vehicles lead to smarter driverless deliveries in urban areas? David Jinks has every reason to think so

The next stage in the unfolding e-commerce revolution could well be the introduction of driverless deliveries, following the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement that autonomous vehicles will be populating the UK’s roads by 2021.

Technology is changing retail at an alarming rate. Web technology has already snatched significant sales from High Street stores – and ParcelHero’s research says we can expect to see around 40% of all UK retail sales taking place online by 2030. The Distribution Centres at the heart of the e-commerce supply chain are quickly moving towards ‘lights out’ automated picking and despatching.

Now it is the turn of the delivery vehicles themselves. Britain could become a leader in this field if ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ lives up to his word and provides the investment and legal changes needed to boost the UK autonomous vehicle industry. This could help slash delivery costs and enable 24/7 deliveries.

The UK is already planning to trial automated truck convoys, following the Automated and Electronic Vehicles Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech earlier this year; with only the lead vehicle being steered by a driver. Such convoys could deliver to out of town mega distribution centres; with smaller automated vehicles – perhaps developed as part of the investment in autonomous vehicles announced in the Budget – taking goods onwards to smaller city centre distribution points.

You’ve probably heard all this before from far wiser heads than mine. The future supply chain hub and spoke model will be served by automated – probably double-trailered – Heavy Goods Vehicles, and container trains, bringing goods to mega hubs on city outskirts. From such mega DCs goods will then be distributed to smaller DCs inside city perimeters; ready for last mile delivery by green vehicle.

An influential report by The Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport (CILT), Vision 2035, discusses how retailers and logistics operators may cooperate in the future to bring about such shared mega distribution centres, and how this could be combined with plans for intelligent highways and greener deliveries.

The final mile

As well as the intelligent convoys being trialled; a little holistic thinking could combine the automated convoys initiative with the investment in smaller autonomous vehicles, to produce intelligent streets. The final mile for home deliveries or into smaller city centre shops could be through driverless electric or hydrogen powered small delivery vehicles, as well as remotely operated droids (such as Starship Technologies’ robot deliveries already being tested in Greenwich)

This new autonomous final mile delivery model would increase accuracy, reducing days lost waiting in for deliveries that never show: failed deliveries cost the UK economy £780 million. Autonomous delivery droids and robots linked to GPS positioning systems would eliminate simple human error – drivers being unable to locate an address and simply skipping the delivery.

But there’s still scope for good old fashioned human couriers too! In conjunction with droid deliveries there could even be the return to cycles for final mile delivery; next-gen pedal-powered vehicles are already being re-introduced to city centres by the likes of DHL and TNT.

Olympic winner

The hub and spoke delivery model is not just a good theory; it was successfully trialled in the UK during the 2012 Olympic Games – albeit without any kind of autonomous element!

Organisations such as Transport for London, DHL and the Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport, cooperated to produce a new solution to the logistics of the Olympics, not only examining how the venues could be serviced; but how London businesses could continue to function at the same time. Consolidation centres were introduced, with night time deliveries authorised to ensure shops could be stocked without adding to the Olympic traffic.

What was hugely encouraging was the level of cooperation between ‘rival’ logistics companies and retailers for the duration of the Olympics. It’s a crying shame the lessons were not put into longer term use post games.

Urban mining

Intelligent highways, autonomous vehicles and the hub-and-spoke urban supply model of the future offer one other intriguing benefit: urban mining.

Have you ever wondered why your deliveries can’t all arrive together? Or why the delivery van could not also take away your ancient TV or past-it PC, rather than run back to its depot empty?

Two remarkable pilot schemes are running in the Dutch towns of Nijmegen and Maastricht operating a ‘Freight Circle’ service. The service, available for retailers and individuals, ensures deliveries are sent to a central freight hub, where they are bundled and delivered to the customer at a convenient time.

The really innovative idea is that the journeys include urban mining: the removal and disposal of valuable waste. The delivery to the customer carries goods from the hub at an agreed time, and the return journey can transport valuable recyclable waste back to the hub, where it is collected by a partner waste management company.

The Dutch Freight Circle scheme is being supported by the EU funded project LaMiLo (Last Mile Logistics). However the UK is already on the brink of its own services: the London Borough of Camden’s freight consolidation scheme is a good example. As the idea of freight hubs develop it will be easy to incorporate urban mining type recycling initiatives into autonomous deliveries and the wider automated supply chain.

The announcement of a boost to autonomous vehicle investment could just put the UK at the vanguard of greener, smarter, deliveries.

You can read more about an integrated approach to city logistics and urban mining schemes at:


David Jinks MILT is Head of Consumer Research for the online parcel broker ParcelHero.

Thinking Highways
By Thinking Highways January 11, 2018 12:04