Automate The Freight: Autonomous Delivery Hits The Mainstream

It should come as no surprise that we here at Hackaday are big boosters of autonomous systems like self-driving vehicles. That’s not to say we’re without a healthy degree of skepticism, and indeed, the whole point of the “Automate the Freight” series is that economic forces will create powerful incentives for companies to build out automated delivery systems before they can afford to capitalize on demand for self-driving passenger vehicles. There’s a path to the glorious day when you can (safely) nap on the way to work, but that path will be paved by shipping and logistics companies with far deeper pockets than the average commuter.

So it was with some interest that we saw a flurry of announcements in the popular press recently regarding automated deliveries. Each by itself wouldn’t be worthy of much attention; companies are always maneuvering to be seen as ahead of the curve on coming trends, and often show off glitzy, over-produced videos and well-crafted press releases as a low-effort way to position themselves as well as to test markets. But seeing three announcements at one time was unusual, and may point to a general feeling by manufacturers that automated deliveries are just around the corner. Plus, each story highlighted advancements in areas specifically covered by “Automate the Freight” articles, so it seemed like a perfect time to review them and perhaps toot our own horn a bit.

We Deliver for You

On any short list of most maligned public-sector institutions in the United States, the Postal Service would probably make an appearance. Sadly, a lot of the damage is self-inflicted by a damaged bureaucracy, but in general, the men and women of the USPS do good work, and those that bad-mouth the Postal Service would do well to remember that providing universal delivery in a country the size of the United States is not exactly an easy job.

US Mail truck making transfers between distribution centers is a common sight on American highways. [Image Source: Harsky’s Blog]
Semi trucks carrying tons of bulk mail between gargantuan national distribution centers and smaller regional facilities are what form the backbone of the continent-wide postal network. These trucks are common sights on Interstate highways in the US, running fixed routes back and forth on a schedule as regular as clockwork. If a pilot program by the USPS bears fruit, those trucks may soon be driverless.

According to Reuters, the USPS has teamed up with self-driving truck startup TuSimple to test self-driving trucks on the bulk-mail route between Phoenix and Dallas this month. The truck, with a safety driver and an engineer on board, will make the 2,000-mile (3200-km) round trip five times. Under normal conditions, the trip takes 45 hours to complete, which requires the use of team drivers. Paying one driver to drive while the other sleeps gets expensive, and with a shortage of drivers in the US it’s often hard to staff. The route is the perfect test bed, too — long, lonely stretches of highway with good visibility, and plenty of services along the way.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of this experiment, and how far it goes in terms of completely replacing long-haul drivers. TuSimple claims to have depot-to-depot capability, unlike some self-driving truck companies that only go driverless for the highway part of the route and let carbon-based drivers handle the surface streets. The video below is pretty convincing on that score — in foul weather, no less — and if they eventually start operating without safety drivers, the USPS and others might start to see some real benefits from autonomous trucking.

Close Air Support

Amazon made a big splash a few years back with some wildly optimistic plans for same-hour delivery of orders via drone. Much fun was poked at the company for its glitzy videos and contrived delivery scenarios, for the seemingly endless variety of UAVs they were willing to throw at the problem, and for patenting silly things like a shipping label that turns into a parachute.

But it seems like Amazon and others with a vested interest in speedy deliveries might have the last laugh. Deutsche Post DHL, the world’s largest logistics company, has begun its first regular UAV delivery service in an urban setting. The Chinese city of Dongguan in Guangdong province is the scene of the somewhat limited test, on a delivery route created especially for a DHL customer. The two facilities are only 8 km (5 miles) apart, but urban traffic and winding roads make that a 40 minute trip by delivery truck. The UAV, an EHang Falcon commercial drone in DHL livery, takes off from an automated hangar that looks a little like a pop-top shipping container. It flies autonomously between the two facilities in only eight minutes.

Again, this is a contrived route for a limited service, but full points to DHL for getting this far. Autonomous drone deliveries over populations and beyond line-of-sight of a safety pilot are probably still a long way off in the US and Europe, but when they get here, it’ll be because of what outfits like DHL learn with experiments like this.

Slow Walking It

Despite what Amazon may think, we doubt that UAV deliveries direct to residential consumers are ever likely to happen on a large scale. That means the “last 100-meter” problem will need to be tackled, to get packages from the back of a self-driving delivery van and to the customer’s door. It’s a thorny problem, and recent silly ideas aside, it hasn’t been tackled in a serious way yet.

That hasn’t stopped companies from trying, as the Ford Motor Company did recently with another fanciful video of Digit, the bipedal delivery robot. A product of Agility Robotics, Digit is a somewhat anthropomorphic robot, if you ignore legs bending the wrong way (and the whole decapitated thing). The idea is that Digit will ride in the back of a self-driving Ford van, stuffed with packages to drop off for waiting customers. When the vehicle arrives, Digit unfurls itself and navigates autonomously around obstacles to the door, package grasped between its stumpy arms.

The video is a little hard to swallow, and the faux fist bump at the end was just lame. But just like how automakers come up with silly concept cars that sometimes make it into production (looking at you, PT Cruiser), Digit or something like it could someday be a common sight in neighborhoods. Ford’s scenario looks quite similar to one we proposed a while back, although we still think the wheeled robot would be far more efficient for such a job.

One way or another, economic forces are going to push autonomous systems into the logistics chain. From picking and packing orders to moving them over the road and eventually dropping them off at our doors, people are going to disappear from deliveries in favor of robots. Dealing with the fallout from that will be a challenge, but it’s hard to see any other end to this story.

40 thoughts on “Automate The Freight: Autonomous Delivery Hits The Mainstream

  1. A 40 ton behemoth doing 65 mph on the highway being controlled by nothing more than some programming done by the lowest bidder running on hardware made by the lowest bidder? Gee, what could possibly go wrong.
    I wonder how high the death toll needs to get before the insanity of self-driving vehicles goes away.

    1. heres the thing, it will never actually go away. What will happen is that the self driving traffic will be seperated from regular traffic and then eventually phase out human controlled traffic.

      Reducing costs and risks in shipping is to valuable to companies who want to make more profit.

      What i don’t get is why rail isnt used more for shipping from city to city (long haul routes)?

      1. I’d love to take part in a real world “self driving” similuation run.
        I am my team of drivers would like to play the part of the “zero fucks given” commuter to see how a line of these trucks cope with cutting them up, lane switching, pulling out in front and so on.
        Essentially testing them them with some of the driving from the The Fast and the Furious franchise. Perhaps without tanks. Or submarines. Or air drops (tho 737 MAX falling out of the sky is a real hazard).
        But you know, typically the insane levels of shit driving you see on the 9-5 commuter run.

      2. I also don’t understand why the railway itself is not massively self driving? There is no steering problem, you have just one variable – speed. Yet most locomotive are driven by humans. One would think if we can make cars drive themselves, the railway would be simple. Yet there are still humans in the locomotives. Something doesn’t add up.

        1. well see that’s the thing, Rail solves most of the cost issue even with human engineers on board. the cost of human per cargo container is almost nil when you have a train that can haul 40-50 cars each capable of 2 40 foot shipping containers. I do agree with you that it should be ripe for automation but i also don’t see the harm in having a human for back up control should something go wrong (sensor malfunction, comms failure, drive failure), there is nothing wrong with the redundancy of having a human backup especially when the cost of human per unit of cargo is so low.

          I do think that there are autonomous rail systems out there but they all have humans as backups. What doesnt make sense is the insistence that cars need to be self driving and operate on the same roads people drive on. I had my first experience with a autopilot engaged model x the other day, it was wholly infuriating to be behind in moderate traffic. it leaves too much room in front and people are continuously cutting in front of it, it must have been traveling 10 km/h slower than the rest of traffic.

      3. Rail is used tons and tons. Trucking gets the overflow or situations where rail isn’t feasible. A lot of men and trucks are still used when something goes by rail. Pickup, drive to rail yard, unload, load onto car (usually a crane or drive on and drop trailer, and then the reverse at the other end. Most of those are union jobs which adds costs.

      4. You don’t drive much do you?

        Our freeways are already over crowded and now you want to take lanes from human drivers for your robots? Not happening.

        And phasing out human traffic? Not happening.

        It just shows how fragile automated trucking is if it needs this so of special set asides.

        1. Nope i don’t drive too much, its costly and most other drivers are idiots.

          I never said i wanted to, but that is what will happen once enough politicians have been bought. Also most freeway systems have lots of extra land on either side and in the middle, the first autonomous lanes will be new creations so as not to take away lanes. The transition will then happen gradually from there.

          Yes it will, especially if some corporation out there is set to make money off of it. The government is for the people and by the people except that the people now refers to corporations as they are willing to spend more on politicians.

          Automated driving is fragile from the get go, it is entirely based off of the idea that you can teach a computer how to react in a situation that it and its trainers have never experienced before. This is also why Tesla has an advantage with all of their vehicles phoning home with testing data. one of the most prevalent sources of random intervention is from other drivers. a company can either waste the majority of their money trying to come up with all sorts of models to deal with the randomness of human drivers or they can show that they tried and that continuing will be an economic roadblock to being competitive and thus lobby politicians to add a couple extra lanes to the highway just for their vehicles.

          Its not right nor is it fair, but you can bet that politicans have no care for your or my opinion when there are profits to be made.

    2. I’d say under a hundred.

      A lot could and will go wrong considering how Silicon Valley cuts corners and uses the lowest bidders for everything. Just look at Alexa and associated devices. Emailing strangers your conversations, etc.

      Here’s what will when a automated truck kills someone.

      Lawyers will sue the deepest pockers. That will mean Amazon, Google, Uber that has been promoting this. These companies in return will sue or blame their contractors who did the hardware and software. These second tier companies will be put out of business real fast.

      And the truck garage that signed off the robot truck being safe for the road, well they will go bye bye.

      I can’t see any trucking repair outfit even wanting to touch these robot trucks because of liability concerns.

      And once people see who gets sued into the poor house, no one will touch robot trucks.

      1. Humans driving trucks already cause fatal accidents, as do improperly maintained trucks.

        Why do you think the legal and insurance systems already in place could not be extended to autonomous vehicles? Remember, there’s a lot of money to be saved by eliminating driver payroll, some of it could be invested in lawyers and insurance.

    3. Road piracy also will be an issue one factor that stops many people from robbing a truck is they don’t want to have to deal with the truck driver who may be armed and an assault or kidnapping charge if they take him/her out.
      With a robot no human driver to worry about harming so no need to hold back.

    1. This.
      Truck drivers aren’t exactly the gold standard for safety. I think we’ll see roads get safer with the advent of autonomous trucks.

      I would love to see autonomous trucking systems that just travel between 10pm – 5am. Totally clearing up the commute for passenger cars.

    1. That is how all automation works, this not only gets rid of the drivers but saves money by getting rid of a couple dispatch jobs, lowering the number of HR drones you need to service employees, reduces maintenance costs through closed loop feedback, lowers the risk of a pissed off driver doing something stupid.

      Its a high initial investment but the idea is the lowering of costs over time will make up for it, and everything else that has been automated gives a good argument for that.

    2. Worse, those robots will be vandalized and stolen as they are worth far more than the merchandise they deliver.

      You think a robot truck and robot that delivers a package to your door step will be safe in a city like Detroit, Baltimore or parts of Los Angeles or Oiakland? No.

      They’ld bet stolen and you’d find the parts being sold on Ebay a hour later.

  2. This is correct.

    Had a job during the late 90s, where the mandate was that the production not have to hire any more technicians for any increase in production test through-put, or for any new product line.

    Did it through process automation – ATE where the only thing the human did was to mount the box on the test station, attach the test report to the box, and put the box back on the line. After this, we developed trouble-shooting trees for both production and RMA units, where the test operator simply did what the computer told him (‘place scope probe B1 on TP39 and press enter’).

    While I had estimated net savings (for these two particular projects) to the company at about $1M USD per annum, the boss later indicated that the most conservative estimate by the bean counters was $7.8M per annum.

  3. Mail coach robbery enters the 21th century.

    If a robot mail truck is running around without a safety driver, wagers on how long it takes before people with radar/radio jammers stop them out in the middle of nowhere and loot the things.

    If the radio is disabled, it can’t call for help. It just vanishes from the system, which can happen for any number of reasons, and by the time the company sends out a dispatch to see what’s going on, it’s too late.

    1. I was thinking the same thing and thieves will be a lot more bold since there’s no human on board.
      Even with constant monitoring the police cannot always be there in time to catch the perpetrators before them and the goods are long gone and several tens of miles away.
      They also cannot respond to every time there’s a disruption in the data link as they would be constantly reacting to false reports and would soon start to ignore such calls.

    2. Why do you think that a safety driver makes any sort of difference in your scenario? is it that you think that the penalties from a murder conviction are enough to deter someone who is already looking at federal charges for tampering with the mail?

      Take the scenario you are describing and explain the difference between a human driver and a robot driver. The only difference is that the human can possibly fight back, a highly laughable idea if you have seen most truck drivers. sure they could be armed but it would be so much easier to get them while they are sleeping in the middle of a long haul route.

      If mail coach robbery was an actual thing then it would already be happening, the problem with your scenario is that there is nothing really worthwhile to be stolen. Almost everything is serialized now a days and finding a fence to move a trailer truck full of dvd players is a movie plot at best, its the cops at worst. No retail store is going to buy it and shipping it out of country is kind of hard given customs inspections, so you could go with direct distribution but then you have to deal with people snitching on you if they get caught with stolen goods. Add into the fact that most of the valuable things that could be stolen are internet enabled and kind of useless when not connected to the internet, stolen goods could easily be dumbed down by the manufacturer which removes 80% of the functionality and value.

    3. Then the police will listen for radio jamming, which is already illegal. Also the trucking company would use a heartbeat signal with current location. When it goes dark someone will go and investigate. I also expect other defenses such as dye packs like banks use cold be effective.

    4. Who cares where the freight gets stolen? Not me, because if it ever gets to my doorstep I guarantee THAT is where it will be stolen! Companies like Amazon are working on the WRONG problem. They should be working on a secure form of unattended delivery. And NO the Amazon Lockers are NOT the solution – they could be, but not the way Amazon runs them, at least the few lockers that are at best a half hour drive from my location in the highly populated part of S.E. Florida where I live. At least 15%-20% of all the shipments I try using the Amazon lockers are either late or they simply vanish. I’ve stopped using them.

      1. Each house needs a locker by the front door.
        It will have a door/hatch to allow items to placed inside (such as the mail chute at Post Offices) that won’t allow items to be removed except from inside the house.

        Some people have a large box bolted down near their front door. Inside the lid they hang an open padlock,
        most delivery people place the package inside the box, and lock it with the padlock.
        If you only expect packages “every other day or so”, it is a good enough solution to package theft.

  4. “There’s a path to the glorious day when you can (safely) nap on the way to work”

    Mostly a utopian misconception, except for the privileged few. The moment your attention isn’t needed for something else, you’ll probably get demands to use that time for even more productivity. If you aren’t needed to drive yourself to work, you’ll be expected to pop open your laptop and start working on the way.

    Very rarely are the time and labor savings brought about by automation used for leisure or the enrichment of the worker’s lives. That’s the big lie, the PR excuse. The convenience of most new technology is the convenience of the owning class. So congrats if you’re a member. Everyone else has to either radically increase their productivity to keep up (without a proportional increase in wages of course–been happening for decades) or simply be made redundant and destitute by total automation. The jobs to replace these things is always theorized like they’re guaranteed to come in time, but they aren’t. That’s a handwave to accelerate progress despite major fundamental problems. No actual transition is planned. Certainly no state program in anticipation of a partially post-scarcity, post-labor world. That concept always been a grift, none of these innovators really want that. Those new jobs that will come will be a lot like the gig jobs we’re seeing today–far lower pay, nowhere near full-time, no benefits, and a dehumanizing level of labor insecurity that makes planning one’s future practically impossible.

    We’ve got to stop acting like silicon valley-style tech innovation is the only avenue we have towards solutions; we’re being garroted by innovation. And the solution to enormous social problems caused by this disruption? More innovation, of course. Accelerationism is almost like a religious conviction. We collectively have a choice on whether the world goes in this direction, despite the cultivated attitude that resistance is futile and any objections constitute Luddism. Maybe look Ludd up sometime–the real story is actually pretty relevant.

    1. That depends on who you are and where you are. Where I live, the traffic heading from the “Downtown” area to the affordable housing are in the west has only one real road and it takes 2 hours to go less than 20 miles; every day. These people commuting are customer service folks, tourist industry folks, and laborer types. None of these people will be expected to work on the way to/from work, because that’s not the nature of their jobs. Now, if they choose to use the time to make haircut appointments and arrangements for an upcoming birthday party, that’s up to them and does, in fact make their *personal* lives more *productive*. :-) THEY are some of the the winners in the automated car scenario. :-)

  5. First, let’s use Amtrak as an example. Amtrak has a map on it’s site that knows where every train is, whether it is moving, what speed it is moving at, and which direction it is going, ETA to destination/next station, how late/early it is since
    it left the last station.. This is thanks to GPS and radio communications as well as trackside monitors that tell dispatchers
    all this information (ATCS).
    The sites that share this data delay it up to 4 minutes at a time so you never really know in true real-time where the
    train actually is. This is to prevent terrorism/theft etc. The train dispatchers see this info in real-time.
    Ham operators have APRS to post their position on the internet in near real-time, almost instantaneous as a matter
    of fact. Great for those evil thieves to look you up and know when your car is not at your house.
    You can find plans online to make a portable EMP device. Make one powerful enough, and you can disable one of
    these trucks in the middle of nowhere, loot it and the stuff is gone. Now not only do these companies have to deal
    with the fact their cargo was stolen, they have to deal with the fried electronics and the now useless automated truck.
    It has become a cat and mouse game. For instance, police communications used to be in the clear in most places.
    There was concern of officer safety knowing the general public could listen in.
    It started first with trunking systems. Regular scanners couldn’t follow. Then scanners came out that followed trunking systems. To beat that, encryption started being used. Like I said, cat and mouse game.
    Since I can’t see legally enough to drive, I would love a car that can drive itself, but from what I’ve seen, the technology
    isn’t there yet. It may work for trains somewhat, but I can’t see it on the roads with all the human driven traffic on them.
    While we probably would all like a KITT from Knight Rider, and things like Alexa, Siri, and other systems are getting
    there, the tech just isn’t good enough yet. Then you have privacy concerns. How is this self driving car being tracked?
    If I remember right, there was a case where a driver using EZ Pass got a ticket for speeding because it was determined
    he couldn’t have made it from point A to point B in the amount of time he did if he wasn’t speeding.
    Privacy is an illusion. You’re on some sort of camera every day, be it a traffic camera, at Walmart, etc.
    Your license plate is scanned every time you pass a police car with a license reader. You can buy trackers on the internet
    to track your car. You can track your kids, your pets, packages, etc. It’s getting so ridiculous. What’s next? Tracking
    when you crap and wipe? While robotics and automation is a fascinating field and we’re trying to make computers
    and technology as user friendly as in the 24th century Star Trek TNG, the question that begs to be asked is,
    how much automation is TOO much?

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