Could autonomous vehicles put last-mile delivery on the fast track?

By Peng He and Jialin Li, World Economic Forum

Transport, integral to our daily lives, is currently undergoing a structural reform – towards digitalization and decarbonization. The COVID pandemic has accelerated the shifts, with everyone adopting new norms. But while social distancing and travel restrictions have meant most people are much less itinerant, other transport sectors are experiencing huge growth. In the parcel delivery sector, the number of items distributed worldwide increased by 17.5%, in 2020 reaching a new high of nearly 25 billion items.

Meanwhile, as the virtual reality and metaverse concepts continue to hint at what people might one do be able to do without stepping out of their homes, e-commerce and online shopping continue to grow rapidly. Since the pandemic started, sales grew an additional 27.6% up until the end of 2020, accounting for 18% of the total global retail market.

Urban last-mile delivery (LMD), a core aspect of the package delivery value chain, is the end leg of an item’s journey, from a transportation hub to a final destination. The most labour-intensive stage of delivery, scattered customer distribution and the high frequency of requests means it accounts for a high proportion of costs across the wider logistics chain. Purpose-designed shopping festivals, like Double 11 in China, and Black Friday and Cyber Monday in western countries, during which time period the number of parcels drastically increases, are a major driver behind the rapid development of this means of urban delivery.

The challenge that LMD is currently facing goes far beyond just building an effective and efficient sorting system. Perennial inner-city problems, such as traffic congestion and carbon emissions, as well as the double parking and the increasing number of delivery vehicles, are becoming ever more disruptive issue for urban transport systems – which naturally affects LMD. It is also an activity heavily reliant on human labour, with its demand for workforce fluctuating depending on peak and idle hours of business.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) could be a solution. Their on-board technology, such as intelligent driving and electric powertrain, means traffic congestion and carbon emissions can be significantly reduced. AVs could also serve to supplement to human delivery to diversify services, and to fill workforce shortages during the busy periods and night hours.

Number of parcels distributed worldwide from 2015 to 2020, by sector (in million units)
Number of parcels distributed worldwide from 2015 to 2020, by sector (in million units)
Image: Statista

Europe, China, and the United States are the regions that have been pioneering the trend of automotive electrification, with electric vehicle (EV) penetration rate in new sales of 10%, 5.7% and 2% in 2020 respectively. In the field of autonomous last-mile delivery, the US is taking the lead, with major players like Starship Technologies and Nuro in the market. In China, trial runs have been conducted only not in logistic parks, private communities and university campuses, but also on open public roads in megacities like Beijing and Shenzhen. Other cities around the world, such as Guangzhou, are taking steps to pioneer this new solution.

Certain ALMDV characteristics make them a brilliant testing platform for cutting-edge intelligent driving technologies. Compared with passenger AVs, ALMDVs are smaller and are normally restricted to relatively low travel speeds, which limits the risk of accidents. With no humans on board, algorithms are generally focused on protecting pedestrians on public roads, without the decision-making dilemma of prioritizing passenger or pedestrian in emergent situations. Besides the technology architecture of the vehicle itself, such as sensoring, positioning and operating, it also provides a good opportunity to apply and test the V2X (vehicle-to-everything) concept. One of the core technological accomplishments of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, this governs how smart vehicles communicate with roadside infrastructure such as traffic lights, including the cloud operation system.

There are also undoubtedly challenges on the demand side. Today’s customers expect immediate or same-day deliveries. Speed of delivery accounts for 52% of decision-making for purchases from customers worldwide, a more important factor than free or discounted shipping fees (38%). As the society has adopted social distancing, more parcels are delivered to a central hub, like parcel lockers, where customers come and pick them up; AV delivery would allow more parcels to delivered right to the doorstep, within a predictable time window, while minimizing human contact.

The application of intelligent driving on a small, flexible device creates a host of scenarios that will require imaginative solutions. Like how ALMDVs can get up stairs to deliver parcels to doorsteps. One idea is to place another autonomous device at the entrance, like a housekeeper robot, with access to the building’s elevator system to take the parcel from the ALMDV and carry it onwards. A new retailing model could be incubated through ALMDVs: one with not only the capability to deliver goods from a nearby store, but that also can be used as a remote displaying and selling device; a “store on the move”, in communities, campuses and tourism areas.

To make ALMDVs a daily reality, the first step is legislation. There are various ways to categorize AVs: people-carriers or goods-carriers; operating on public roads or private property; high speed or low speed, and so on. But which type of regulations should be apply to the Autonomous Last Mile Delivery Vehicle (ALMDV)? Is it a vehicle, a non-motor vehicle, a personal delivery device, or a robot? The answer to this question ultimately determines which lane an ALMDV will be allowed to drive. On roadways, it is allowed to travel at faster speeds, and the lanes are shared with other vehicles rather than pedestrians. On sidewalks and off roads, the speed limits are usually much lower, but there are more potentially dangerous interactions with people. Discussions about how to define ALMDVs are ongoing among different stakeholders, with the hope of establishing a new category for them.

At the turning point of decarbonization and digitalization of the automotive and transport industries, we face both opportunities and challenges. Intelligent driving technologies offer new business models, user scenarios and lifestyles. The industry will benefit from collaboration across different sectors, such as between policy-makers and enterprises. Innovation and technological breakthroughs need a supportive environment of flexible policies and regulations. It’s exciting to see ALMDV pilot projects spring up in different regions, experiences being shared between the pioneers and those following in their wake, and more discussion between different stakeholders. The mass adoption of intelligent driving is around the corner now – let’s move it, and society, into the next gear.

10,000 Pounds Of Fresh Food Deliveries From Ford Autonomous Vehicle

By Zachary Shahan, CleanTechnica

The big dream with autonomous vehicles is vehicles that can drive by themselves anywhere. Most commonly, we think of “robotaxis.” However, there are various types of autonomous vehicles in development for different purposes, at different scales, and with different pros & cons, and there are even some in operation in limited environments.

For example, Ford’s got a fun and helpful autonomous vehicle pilot program going on up in Detroit. Rather than delivering people from place to place, it’s delivering food — 10,000 pounds of food — to senior citizens who face mobility challenges.

Ford is using a low-speed autonomous vehicle on a fixed route that reminds me of the Navya autonomous shuttle that we’ve covered from time to time for at least 4 years. Clearly, it’s much easier to send a vehicle on a fixed route with some sensors to keep them on the road than it is to send a robotaxi to any corner of any city in the country. But that doesn’t mean having a driverless vehicle for specific needs where it can operate isn’t very useful and exciting. Further, in this case, the Ford autonomous shuttle is helping to serve the needs of disadvantaged elderly people. (Yes, it’s true that this is not normal Ford business and the funding for it comes from a philanthropic arm of Ford, Ford Motor Company Fund.)

In this case, the autonomous shuttle pilot vehicle comes from the Ford future tech autonomous vehicle team and Quantum Signal AI, which is a subsidiary of Ford. While the vehicle is fully autonomous, it will be monitored by a “safety driver” since this is indeed a pilot vehicle and pilot program. Additionally, there will be a remote operations team monitoring how things go from afar. If help is needed and the safety driver isn’t up to the task, or perhaps to test certain capabilities, the remote operations team can intervene.

As a cherry on top, the shuttle design comes from a local high school artist who won $5000 for the contribution. “An exterior design on the shuttle representing the Southwest Detroit neighborhood, created by Detroit School of Arts 12th-grader Brooke Snow, displays an inclusive message of community. Snow plans to use the $5,000 she was awarded for her design to pay for college expenses.”

For now, this is just a 6-month pilot program. “Located within the Michigan Central impact area where Ford is putting mobility innovation and community at its forefront, the six-month pilot is one of the first projects bringing the Michigan Central district to life. It is expected to provide 10,000 pounds of fresh food to the doorsteps of senior citizens who lack access to food due to mobility challenges,” Ford writes.

“We’re constantly thinking about how to expand our reach in communities for those who don’t have access to the most basic goods, like groceries or warm meals,” said Joe Provenzano, mobility director, Ford Motor Company Fund. “Bringing Ford’s mobility expertise together with local collaborations allows us to create innovative solutions that make communities stronger and people’s lives better.”

So far, 2.4 million pounds of food have reportedly been delivered by Ford Fund and Gleaners.

“CSI and Rio Vista Detroit Co-op are incredibly excited for this collaboration with Ford Motor Company,” said Eric Finkler, co-op liaison, Rio Vista Detroit. “For many seniors in this community, access to transportation is integral for retaining their independence, and the automated vehicle delivery program will help expand our members’ access to groceries, easing one barrier to independent living. Our hope is that with one less thing to worry about, our members can focus on family, coordinating doctor visits, handling day-to-day responsibilities, and spending time on things that they enjoy – like volunteering!”

Naturally, the aim is to learn from this experience an be able to eventually roll out other autonomous (truly autonomous, with no safety driver) shuttle services in more of Michigan and beyond.

All images courtesy of Ford.

Self-driving technology won’t endanger truck driver’s role, developers say

By Cristina Commendatore, FleetOwner

What happens to over-the-road truck drivers as we know them when an SAE Level 4 automated truck is ready for the long haul? It’s a common question that comes up in industry conversations, but autonomous truck technology developers are intent on making one message crystal clear: Those interested in becoming truck drivers today can still retire as truck drivers in the next several decades.

“If a new driver wants to enter the field today, we can guarantee that he or she will retire a driver in 40 or 50 years,” Vivian Sun, VP of business development for TuSimple, pointed out during the Women in Trucking Association’s recent Accelerate! virtual event.

TuSimple sees trucking’s workforce issue as threefold, Sun noted. For starters, autonomous systems could help fill current driver gaps in the linehaul space. Autonomous vehicle (AV) technology will be rolled out in phases as operational kinks continue to be worked out. Finally, there always will be a need for drivers, though that role may look different years down the road, Sun said.

See also: Trucking’s safer, self-driving future is around the corner and TuSimple, UPS top 160,000 autonomous miles together, expand to East Coast

“In every single one of our vehicles, we have a safety driver in place,” Brenda Mejia, operations manager at Gatik, explained during WIT’s virtual conference. “These are individuals that we actively recruit from the trucking industry. They have such a wealth of knowledge that they also help us understand the truck and its maintenance needs to operate.”

From Gatik’s point of view, AV technology also will create new jobs within trucking’s ranks—in areas such remote driving assistance, new fleet maintenance practices, and technician requirements, and for operators needed to load and unload freight.

Discussions of when self-driving trucks will become a reality have been nearly impossible to ignore due to publicized developments and real-world testing coming from the autonomous vehicle (AV) space these days. Providers such as AuroraEmbark, Gatik, KodiakLocomationPlusWaymoTorc Robotics, and TuSimple have elevated their production developments and partnerships to meet rising demand and expectations from end consumers, who crave more immediate deliveries and a 24/7 supply chain. Ecommerce, which was already on the rise, surged during initial pandemic lockdowns, causing grocery and other retail and delivery services to move their business operations that much closer to customers. The ecommerce economy went from annual 3% to 5% growth to a 20% increase in 2020.

AV developers have taken note and partnered with truck OEMs, powertrain manufacturers, and commercial fleets to advance and test the technology. During WIT’s event, Joanna Buttler, director of Daimler Trucks North America’s Autonomous Vehicle Program, noted that DTNA has partnered with AV developers Waymo and Torc Robotics to further improve commercial vehicle safety and enhance freight transportation.

Right now, Buttler said fleets are adopting Level 2 driver-assistance systems more and more as conscious investments in safety and driver comfort. Level 4 autonomy, she noted, takes today’s Level 2 technologies to the next level.

“Keeping the goods flowing 24/7, and doing that safety and more efficiently, is a major driver,” Buttler said. “That’s where Level 4 brings really great advantages. It’s a complementary mode of transportation, so it will supplement the driver shortage need that we see and keep goods moving 24/7. When drivers have to take a break and need to rest, the technology can keep on going, so to speak.”

Through DTNA’s partnership with Waymo, the Freightliner Cascadia will be outfitted with the Waymo Driver and will be available to fleet customers in the coming years, noted Frances Guo, product manager for trucking at Waymo.

See also: Torc Robotics quietly developing the fleet product of the future

And when it comes to fleet maintenance and new jobs in terms of maintaining autonomous vehicles, Guo said understanding new requirements for technicians also has been an ongoing discussion.

“There are a whole host of [jobs] involved that aren’t going to go away overnight,” Guo explained. “Right now, Waymo is focused on the driving task and everything else to support the driving. We need people on board to load and unload the cargo, inspect the trucks and trailers, refuel, record deliveries, dispatch, and technicians to maintain the vehicles. There are a whole bunch of opportunities that will open up as we develop this technology.”

Overall, DTNA’s Buttler said the end goal will be to demystify the notion that autonomous truck technology will endanger industry jobs.

Expect a change in operations

From an operational perspective, although AV technology isn’t expected to endanger various jobs across the trucking space, TuSimple’s Sun does envision significant changes for fleet operators.

Terminals, Sun said, will need to be queued up and integrated as AV-certified. She added that certain infrastructure to accommodate data uploads also will need to be installed at fleet, shipper, and end-customer locations.

Another change, Sun anticipates, is how fleets will utilize their assets.

“With autonomous vehicles, one of the benefits is assets can run day and night, rain or shine,” Sun said. “It’s a competitive advantage for a fleet that can manage their network more quickly, address safety concerns, move assets more quickly, and turn them around for improved uptime.”

DTNA’s Buttler emphasized the importance of a smooth business transition by leveraging partnerships across the entire value chain.

“We are looking to release this technology first in a hub-to-hub use case, so for some fleets that means a change of their operational model if the technology cannot reach the final depot,” she explained.

When it comes down to who will operate those hubs, Buttler said it could be an upscaled version of technicians who are tasked with monitoring the health of the vehicle, and/or AV operators and dispatchers to oversee autonomous mission controls.

Regulatory patchwork for AVs

The road to autonomous trucks in the U.S., though paved with general federal support, remains a patchwork of regulatory environments among the states. And certain parts of the country, like Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico, have been welcome to autonomous truck testing.

Right now, two federal agencies in the U.S.—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration—are supportive of autonomous truck development and are undergoing rulemaking processes. But because AV systems are not looking to dramatically change the commercial vehicle itself, NHTSA’s rulemaking at this time is about accommodating drivers, James “Wiley” Deck, VP of government affairs at Plus, told FleetOwner during American Trucking Associations’ (ATA) 2021 Management Conference and Exhibition (MCE) in Nashville. Deck previously served as the FMCSA’s deputy administrator under President Trump.

As for FMCSA, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s AV 3.0 issued in 2018, current guidance and discussion about the future of AVs would not require a human in the cab. Though nothing is set yet.

“Now, nobody is talking about doing that right now,” Deck said. “The technology is still developing and maturing, but it’s moving rather quickly in that direction.”

“With us and the others in the industry, safety is paramount,” he added. “We are not going to put a product out there on the road that we think might endanger other road users.”

Because the feds haven’t set a national standard, states are coming up with limited, varying standards. For the most part, Deck told FleetOwner, states allow testing and deployment of AVs—with California being the outlier. California currently allows for the testing of passenger vehicles, but specifically prohibits the operation of large trucks or vehicles over 10,000 lb.

“We believe the technology will be there for 2024, but there are things we don’t control,” Deck said, pointing to CVSA inspections and FMCSA regulations.

One of the challenges with the technology now, Deck added, is training it to operate on snow and ice.

As for the truck drivers who are concerned that these systems will put them out of work, Deck said the trucking industry as a whole is so large, mostly made up of fleets of 50 power units or fewer. Widespread adoption would depend on how quickly those operations would automate their fleets, he said.

“If you are interested in becoming a truck driver now, go ahead,” Deck advised. “You are going to be able to retire as a truck driver. The industry is so large that you have an estimated 80,000 driver shortage—and those are just the drivers we are short. How quickly can the OEMs start manufacturing automated trucks to fill the capacity we are short?”

“Then, you calculate in the fleet sizes and what they do with their existing trucks after five or six years,” Deck continued. “Those companies want to get a return on investment on the trucks they purchase and sell to a mom and pop or owner-operator, so existing trucks are going to stay in the industry for quite some time.”

Autonomous semis driving through Phoenix-area as truck driver shortage looms

By David Caltabiano, AZ Family

PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -Truck driver shortages leading to supply chain issues are a concern in the holiday season, and the solution sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie. Advancements in self-driving cars are happening in Arizona, and experts and one major company believe it’s the answer to the driver shortage we’re seeing.

You may have seen big blue semis on the Loop 202 or I-10. They could be a solution to the truck driver shortage affecting the supply chain. The Waymo Via Trucking units drive themselves in a pilot program in Arizona and Texas.

“The last year really put a spotlight on the truck driver shortage,” said John Verdon with Waymo Via Trucking’s Lead Business and Partnerships. “It’s an area where our technology can help immensely.”

Verdon said their autonomous technology is being used with existing trucking companies experiencing that shortage. “We are very much focused on automating the long haul highway driving; that’s the hardest trucking job to recruit, given that a driver has to spend days, weeks away from their family,” said Verdon.

The American Trucking Association reports 80,000 driver openings across the country, which is on track to double by 2030.

“The attrition rate of drivers is very, very high; I’m not blaming them. That’s the nature of the industry,” said Arizona State University Supply Chain Professor Hitendra Chaturvedi. He says sooner than you know it, no drivers will be needed.

“That is going to happen, and anyone who thinks it won’t happen is entirely wrong; they’re like an ostrich with their head in the sand,” said Chaturvedi.

Chaturvedi said industries improve with new technology, and he expects automation to alleviate many of the issues in the supply chain we see today.

“In my opinion, it’s going to be a great thing, it’s going to cut costs of maintenance, it’s going to increase reliability, it’s going to increase efficiency,” said Chaturvedi. “In the end, consumers are going to win, and they’re going to win big.”

Right now, the autonomous trucks in Arizona and Texas have people inside the cab, but in the coming years, no one will be inside. The first fleet will drive across the southwest in “the coming years.” Chaturvedi expects job loss from this but said new tech always brings new jobs.

Nuro Launches Upskilling Initiative

By Nuro Team, Medium

California’s rapidly approaching widespread deployment of autonomous electric vehicles is an important step toward a greener future for everyone. This coming sea change offers plenty of much needed energy and transportation solutions, but it also brings something else: jobs.

That is why we are excited to announce the nation’s first community college program that will offer a new career pathway to prepare the next generation of electric, autonomous fleet technicians with a free tuition option. This partnership with Bay Area-based De Anza College will serve as the blueprint for Nuro’s Autonomous Upskilling Initiative — a program where Nuro will partner with community colleges in our operating areas across the nation to create education and training opportunities for workers looking to upskill.

As the first company to receive California’s Autonomous Deployment Permit, Nuro is deploying our zero-occupant, battery-electric vehicle in partnership with companies such as 7-Eleven. We have an immediate and long-term need to fill a wide variety of roles, many of which do not require four-year degrees. These include Fleet Technicians, Jr. Fleet Technicians, and Fleet Technician Supervisors. Within the past two years, we have found these specific roles require a diverse set of skills spanning automotive, computer science, and electrical, which means few candidates are trained in all the disciplines needed to maintain our innovative vehicles.

To prepare students with the cutting-edge skills needed to work on Nuro’s electric R2 vehicles and autonomous Prius fleet, De Anza’s staff worked with us to create and launch the Autonomous and Electric Vehicle Technician pathway, which combines existing coursework related to electric vehicle technology and computer programming. The pathway consists of two sets of coursework — Level I and Level II — that are anticipated to be offered as De Anza certificates.

As an option, this Autonomous and Electric Vehicle Technician program includes a completely tuition-free path. Students can complete the Level I coursework by taking free, noncredit versions of the same courses at De Anza, making this an excellent opportunity to gain valuable career training without financial cost.

“The autonomous vehicle technician partnership between Nuro and De Anza College is an exciting, pioneering moment in our economy,” said Congressman Eric Swalwell. “De Anza students have a new path toward well-paid careers, while Nuro advances self-driving technology that can make on-demand services available to all. It’s a win-win situation that should be emulated far and wide.”

It’s a great time for this initiative: a recent Steer Group report found that autonomous delivery vehicles have the potential to create and sustain an average of 3.4 million jobs annually from 2025–2035. And, as California recently required all autonomous vehicles to be zero-emission by model year 2031, the need to service these fleets will only increase. To accommodate this growth, filling these living wage, fully-benefited roles will require new talent pipelines and workforce training, as this technology does not fit neatly into traditional academic categories.

Nuro is committed to providing paid opportunities for De Anza’s students, many of whom must work part or full-time jobs while going to school. This is not only key to attracting and retaining students in the program, but provides more exposure to Nuro vehicles and the hands-on training that is critical to success in this field. As a result, De Anza students in the program may qualify for paid internships or part-time work opportunities at Nuro while completing the pathway. They will also have preference in applying to full-time positions at Nuro after completing the Level I coursework.

We are excited to provide these job opportunities in our operational areas, and look forward to pursuing similar partnerships across the country to fill these new, green tech jobs.