That (tricky) last mile

Around the world there are more than 800 cities with at least one million inhabitants. And the number is increasing. The volume of delivery traffic is growing too and blocks the roads during the day. The service providers covering the last mile are therefore seeking innovative solutions to revolutionize deliveries.

Around the world there are more than 800 cities with at least one million inhabitants. And the number is increasing. The volume of delivery traffic is growing too and blocks the roads during the day. The service providers covering the last mile are therefore seeking innovative solutions to revolutionize deliveries.

Parcel boom is not ending

“The customer is king” and today the customers decide when and where their packages are delivered – to the home, the office, a neighbor, a “packet station” or a “packet shop,” and the timing can be set and changed in real time. Deliveries are now more flexible than ever before. And more new forms are appearing all the time. Volkswagen's We Deliver in cooperation with DHL in Berlin has tested delivering to cars as mobile recipients. The authorized parcel carrier uses an app with a special code to open the trunk of the customer’s car and close it again. Volvo is offering its n-Car-Delivery service in cooperation with the Swiss Post and Amazon in the US. Deutsche Post offers generous parcel boxes for apartment buildings, to avoid the problems of delivering packages when the recipients are not at home. Deutsche Telekom is marketing its PaketButler – a lockable bag attached to the recipient’s front door. The problems are multiplying with the steadily increasing demand for individual delivery options, for the fastest possible service such as same day delivery, and the associated flood of parcels. According to the German parcel and express association (BIEK), the volume of parcels is rising by four to five percent a year. The Nuremburg-based market research company GfK forecasts that online sales in Germany will double by 2025. At the same time, delivery drivers are under huge time pressure. They not uncommonly have to deliver 150 to 200 packages in a day. On average, the drivers have a little less than three minutes to drive to the next address, park their vehicle, find the right door and hand over the package.

Time for a re-think

Light commercial vehicles in particular are therefore gaining huge importance. They are the workhorses of urban logistics. They drive in populated areas and therefore directly influence the quality of life in our towns and cities. Today, trucks make up 25 to 30 percent of urban traffic; many of them are not even half full. The result is blocked roads. Road traffic has been reduced to a permanent crawl in the world’s metropolitan areas. In major urban centers such as Berlin and Hamburg, the topic became a political issue long ago. And the logistics sector faces additional challenges: The threat of driving bans, the environmental zones and the residents’ desire for less traffic noise all demand alternative logistical approaches. So there are enough reasons for the sector, the OEMs and suppliers to cooperate on developing new mobility solutions – and to pursue unconventional paths in doing so.

Double-parked delivery vans often block the roads in inner cities short of parking spaces. Picture: Unsplash

Micro-depots for towns and cities

There are new methods for performing some deliveries with a previously unseen level of flexibility and markedly raised efficiency levels – for instance drones, robots or electrically powered vans. But it’s not only innovative technologies and vehicle designs that are needed. Urban planners, traffic researchers, vehicle makers and courier services must work together to develop alternatives for inner-city freight transport, which include such things as city hubs. These concepts are based on storage points in close proximity to the recipients. These micro-depots can be located in parking garages or at local transport stops, to be filled only at night. During the day, delivery staff then remove the packages from the depots and distribute them on foot, or using a barrow or a cargo bike.

In Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, Germany’s five largest parcel delivery companies including Hermes, DHL and DPD tested delivery by cargo bike for one year. Up to eleven cargo bikes were in use every day. A total of 38,000 kilometers were traveled in the project named KoMoDo (a German acronym for “cooperative use of micro depots by the courier, express and parcel sector for the sustainable deployment of cargo bikes in Berlin), and 160,000 parcels were delivered. The aim was to trial an alternative concept for urban delivery traffic. In mid-2019 the participating companies concluded that above all areas with a high drop density and suitable packages (number of items, volume and weight) were predestined for this approach. It requires suitable cooperative micro-depots in central locations. Now appropriate sites for more micro-depots are to be set up throughout Berlin.

Der Vision URBANETIC von Mercedes-Benz hebt die Trennung von Personenbeförderung und Gütertransport auf.

Mercedes-Benz Vision URBANETIC: Mobilität für den urbanen Raum

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From autonomous minibus to minivan

Studies have shown that the average passenger car is used for less than one hour a day – with the exception of longer journeys, the vehicles are either stationary for 23 hours a day or are not used at all. But the picture for future autonomous shuttles will be the exact opposite: profitability will depend on the people movers being on the go as much as possible. And so, before and after the rush hour, they could have a different function. Minibuses will mutate into cargo movers either on an hourly basis or for a night shift. The futuristic Vision URBANETIC concept is based on a chassis that can be equipped with different bodies depending on the job to be done. As a ridesharing vehicle it can accommodate up to twelve passengers. With the cargo module, the electrically powered vehicle mutates into a goods van taking up to ten pallets. Continental is planning to have its CUbE People Mover (presented at the IAA 2019) drive to the relevant district and deploy small, agile delivery robots that are later gathered in again before it returns to the depot. Developers are expecting a delivery rate of 100 percent with the aid of the robots. At present a delivery firm often simply has to hope that the recipient is at home. But the situation will be reversed when the robots are used: they will be ready and waiting to be activated by the customer at any time. According to ZF’s study entitled “Last Mile” from 2016, by 2030 up to 400 million packages per year could be delivered by transport robots in Germany.

Alternative delivery robots

Continental’s robot solution for the last mile is called Corriere LM and it has four wheels. The delivery robot’s antenna and compact shape are reminiscent of a handcart. But inside it is right up-to-date. GPS and a veritable army of the most advanced sensor systems such as lidar, ultrasound and high-resolution cameras at the front, rear, sides and underside navigate the robot that communicates via the 4G network. The robot can carry a payload weighing up to 15 kilograms. The wheels can be turned in opposite directions as necessary, enabling the Corriere to turn round on the spot in elevators and cope with high curbs. The electric machine has a top speed of 8 km/h – about the same as a fast walking pace – and is designed to run on the sidewalk in towns and cities. This means that the agile delivery robot is predestined for short distances in particular, i.e. deliveries within a radius of around five kilometers. As the vehicle is electrically powered, it hardly makes any noise. While the Corriere is “on tour” the recipient can at any time use an app to see where the delivery robot with the order is. Once the robot reaches its destination, the customer again uses the app to open the lid and can remove the goods. In 2020 the first test deliveries will start in Singapore. The uses are limitless: bringing sushi from a restaurant to the office, medicines from a pharmacy to the patient’s home, or parcels to a customer.

Der ANYmal zeigt sein Können für die letzte Meile.

Last-Meter Robotic Package Delivery with ANYmal (CES 2019, ANYbotics & Continental)

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Delivery robots on legs

Amazon now has its own Scout delivery robot that is very similar to the development from the Estonian startup Starship Technologies. Since it was founded in 2014, the pioneering firm has completed over 100,000 deliveries. Hermes tested Starship’s delivery robot in Hamburg for six months. At the end of the trial, the parcel delivery firm drew a positive conclusion. There were problems in areas such as battery performance and the insufficient coverage of fast LTE mobile communications networks. The current legal regulations in Germany would not allow a robot to be deployed without being accompanied by a human being. That would require regulation at national level. An alternative to miniature vans would be agile robots that can cope with steps and elevators. These “ANYmals” resembling dogs are the invention of the Swiss company ANYbotics, a spin-off from the ETH Zürich. Ford and Agility Robotic are currently testing the deployment of Digit in the US. Digit is a bipedal robot that walks like a human being. It can pick up packages weighing up to 20 kilograms, climb stairs, and move in a natural way without losing its balance or falling over. On the efeuCampus in Bruchsal, southern Germany, a district is being created for 240 residents. Self-driving transport boxes will take parcels from a central depot to the residents’ homes and bring items for mailing back to the depot.

„Autonomous robots generate completely new application scenarios. The main advantage is definitely that delivery robots can theoretically be deployed 24/7. So parcel deliveries and collections will become much more individually tailored to each customer than they are today, and include early mornings, evenings, or the nighttime.“
Roger Hillen-PasedagRoger Hillen-Pasedag, former Division Manager Strategy & Innovation at Hermes Germany

Drone express

But until we get to that stage, parcel delivery firms will continue to bear the lion’s share of the burden. Although it must be said that Daimler plans to make their work easier very soon. The vehicle manufacturer unveiled its Vision Van at the IAA 2016 in Hannover. It is a scenario for the future of the local delivery van and is not only electric, with a range of up to 270 kilometers, but also relieves the driver of a large chunk of the work. This process begins at the hub. Instead of all the packages being loaded individually into the van by hand, a pre-filled rack is slid into the vehicle’s cargo space. This cuts out a lot of the time needed for loading. And once the vehicle reaches the customer, the driver no longer has to distribute all the packages himself. The “Vision Van” acts as a mother ship for automated drones that deliver a freight box to the recipient and then return. The driver does not even have to search the cargo for the parcel because a robot arm will pick the right package for each address and pass it out through a hatch in the driver’s cab. This should shave 30 seconds off each stop, which would be a huge efficiency gain for the delivery company. At the end of 2017, the concept was taken further with the development of Vans & Drones. In this system, drones do not take the packages directly to the customer, but to a delivery vehicle that then covers the last mile. The drones land on the roof of the van at a height of roughly two meters. They are made by the company Matternet, and can carry a maximum payload of two kilograms a distance of around 20 kilometers.

Airlift for remote destinations

Picture: DHL

On behalf of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the fourth generation of the Paketkopter carried medicines to an island in Lake Victoria in Africa for six months in 2018. The device covered the 60 kilometers from the mainland to the island in an average of 40 minutes. But the quadrocopter is not being deployed in German towns and cities because there is simply no business model. In China, on the other hand, DHL Express launched its first inner-city route in May 2019. Freight drones take express packages to commercial customers every day in the city of Guangzhou. When a drone approaches, the roof of the packet station opens to expose the landing pad. Packages are loaded and unloaded automatically. Customers only have to identify themselves by means of their ID card or by face recognition. The innovative drone has eight rotors. Its features include vertical take-off and landing, a high-precision navigation and positioning system, fully automatic intelligent route planning, and a real-time network connection. More routes will be added soon.