The First Steps to a Driverless Future
Motoring's destiny could take many forms, but it's autonomous activity that's got everybody's attention. We invited the Academy of Robotics' William Sachiti to describe his vision of the future...
Advancements in modern technology have brought us astounding levels of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. With machines becoming able to streamline and even complete human tasks, we can expect to see some radical changes in the ways we live our lives.
While the delivery of goods is just one aspect of life that'll be shaken up, it is, however, a significant one. In the internet age after all, receiving deliveries is, well, part and parcel in most of our lives.
But how will the transformation of delivery unfold? We all know that the most radical change will involve the drivers of delivery vehicles – put simply, human drivers and their vehicles will be replaced by AI-controlled machines.
While driverless vehicles have yet to hit out roads (although they are just around the bend), the efficient and instant decision-making power of AI is already used with human drivers.
The UPS-developed On-Road Integrated Optimization and Navigation (ORION) uses masses of data and advanced algorithms to optimise routes for its drivers.
"The technology helps UPS drivers to determine the optimal way to deliver and pick-up packages within a set of stops defined by start time, commit time, pick-up windows and special customer needs," according to UPS.
Now that the logistics of the world's largest package delivery company is now controlled by technology, vehicles and their operators will swiftly follow.
Autonomous vehicles will deliver 80% of all items within the next decade, according to 'Parcel delivery: The future of last mile', an extensive report released in December 2016 by McKinsey & Company.
Such autonomous vehicles will of course, take many different forms.
With its wealth of resources and dominance in retail delivery, it is Amazon that's pioneering drone delivery. Recently announcing drone 'Beehives' in cities, Amazon hopes to house drones close enough to population centres to be more efficient than road-based delivery methods.
Meanwhile, Mole Solutions is ignoring both road and air for something completely different: below-ground freight capsules. Thrown into the delivery mix, such an invention could help to reduce road (and air) traffic congestion, as well as keeping deliveries out of sight.
Pelipod on the other hand, is seeking to cater specifically to businesses that need efficient, secure and direct delivery. Bypassing post offices, courier firms and depots, the firm is pioneering delivery pods that will travel straight to the destination. Integrated electronic systems will grant access only to authorised users, and will provide proof of delivery.
And Kar-Go, the driverless delivery vehicle from my own Academy of Robotics, will autonomously navigate unmarked roads such as residential area, and use an intelligent package management system to deliver packages to retail customers, day or night.
You don’t need to be a futurist to predict that when technology allows human labour to be replicated in a cheaper and more efficient way, companies will adopt this new system as fast as, well, humanly possible.
Looking beyond the first incarnations of autonomous vehicles and towards the far-future of delivery, the process will eventually become digital.
To put this into context, 25 years ago, the only way to send a document to someone was to have it physically delivered. With a little help from technology, the same document could, just a few years later, be scattered into bits of information, sent across the world and re-assembled in a matter of minutes.
They called this remarkable document teleportation process, faxing.
As technology improved, the time it took to send a document moved from minutes, to seconds, to an instant. So if delivery of physical goods continues to incrementally improve over time, it’s not unrealistic to imagine that your latest iPhone could one day not be physically sent to you at all.
Rather, it could be purchased via a digital download and, through some 3D printer/fax machine-hybrid, be re-assembled in your living room.
Of course, we can’t expect to see such an invention anytime soon. Technological advancements – despite accelerations in the digital age – are gradual. In the meantime, though, our lives could be transformed by autonomous delivery vehicles, and indeed driverless vehicles in general.
Just as delivery vehicles will be used to maximise efficiency and safety beyond the capabilities of humans, so too will passenger vehicles.
With giants like Google, Tesla and Uber counted among the early adopters of self-driving cars, you can bet that the overwhelming majority of future vehicles, whether transporting people or packages, will be driverless.
Academy of Robotics is a UK start-up specialising in creating ground-breaking robotics technologies such as autonomous vehicles. Their first commercial solution, Kar-Go, is an autonomous delivery vehicle that will vastly reduce the last-mile costs associated with deliveries.
The Academy is based at the University of Aberystwyth, allowing it to leverage resources such as labs and equipment in order to keeps costs low. So far, the Academy has a working prototype robot which can drive itself on unmarked roads and pavements between any two locations, and is simultaneously working with UK car manufacturer Pilgrim to create street legal versions.
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