For as popular as they became during the COVID-19 lockdowns, grocery delivery services like InstaCart rely on a basic assumption to work: that customers know exactly what they want when they order. Once that hurdle is overcome, the transaction is simple — the driver accepts the job, drives to the store to pick up the order, and takes it to the customer. It requires the use of a fair amount of technology to coordinate everything, but by and large it works, and customers are generally willing to pay for the convenience.
But what if you could cut out that step where the driver goes to pick up your order? What if instead of paying someone to pick and pack your order and bring it to your front step, you just ordered up the whole store instead? That’s the idea behind Robomart, which seeks to deploy a fleet of mobile stores for when the convenience store isn’t quite convenient enough. And the way the company is choosing to roll out its service, not to mention the business model itself, may hold key lessons for other delivery automation platforms.
Continue reading “Automate The Freight: The Convenience Store That Comes To Your Door”
The UK will get its first full-size autonomous bus service this summer, if final road testing that begins in the next two weeks goes according to plan.
Known as Project CAVForth for the UK government’s Center for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) and the Forth bridge, over which the buses will travel, it is said to be the most complex test of autonomous on-road mass transit yet undertaken in Europe. The full-size single-deck motorcoaches, five in total, will ply a 22-km (14-mile) route into Edinburgh from Fife, crossing the famous Firth of Forth on the Forth Road suspension bridge. The buses will carry about 36 passengers each and run at SAE Level 4 autonomy, meaning that a safety driver is optional under good driving conditions. Continue reading “Automate The Freight: Autonomous Buses To Start Operation In UK”
It is by no means an overstatement to say that life as we know it would grind to a halt without cargo ships. If any doubt remained about that fact, the last year and a half of supply chain woes put that to bed; we all now know just how much of the stuff we need — and sadly, a lot of the stuff we don’t need but still think we do — comes to us by way of one or more ocean crossings, on vessels specialized to carry everything from shipping containers to bulk liquid and solid cargo.
While the large and complex vessels that form the backbone of these globe-spanning supply chains are marvelous engineering achievements, they’re still utterly dependent on their crews to make them run efficiently. So it’s not at all surprising to learn that some shipping lines are working on ways to completely automate their cargo ships, to reduce their exposure to the need for human labor. On paper, it seems like a great idea — unless you’re a seafarer, of course. But is it a realistic scenario? Will shipping companies realize the savings that they apparently hope for by having fleets of unmanned cargo vessels plying the world’s oceans? Is this the right way to automate the freight?
Continue reading “Automate The Freight: Autonomous Ships Look For Their Niche”
On yet another one of those long, pointless road trips that seemed to punctuate my life starting when I got my license, I was plying the roads somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania with a friend. He told me that on long trips he’d often relieve the boredom by finding another car from the same state as his destination, and then just follow it. I wasn’t sure then how staring at the same car, hour after hour, mile after mile, would do anything but increase the boredom while making you look sort of creepy, but it seemed to work for him.
What works for college kids in cars also works for long-haul truckers, and the concept of a convoy has long been a fact of life on the road and a part of popular culture. Hardly a trip on the US Interstate goes by without seeing a least two truckers traveling in close formation, partly for companionship and mutual support but also for economic reasons. And now technology is poised to take convoying to the next level, as platooning becomes yet another way to automate the freight.
Continue reading “Automate The Freight: Platooning”
Before I got a license and a car, getting to and from high school was an ordeal. The hour-long bus ride was awful, as one would expect when sixty adolescents are crammed together with minimal supervision. Avoiding the realities going on around me was a constant chore, aided by frequent mental excursions. One such wandering led me to the conclusion that we high schoolers were nothing but cargo on a delivery truck designed for people. That was a cheery fact to face at the beginning of a school day.
What’s true for a bus full of students is equally true for every city bus, trolley, subway, or long-haul motorcoach you see. People can be freight just as much as pallets of groceries in a semi or a bunch of smiling boxes and envelopes in a brown panel truck. And the same economic factors that we’ve been insisting will make it far more likely that autonomous vehicles will penetrate the freight delivery market before we see self-driving passenger vehicles are at work with people moving. This time on Automate the Freight: what happens when the freight is people?
Continue reading “Automate The Freight: When The Freight Is People”
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.
Continue reading “Automate The Freight: Autonomous Delivery Hits The Mainstream”
In the “Automate the Freight” series, I’ve concentrated on stories that reflect my premise that the killer app for self-driving vehicles will not be private passenger cars, but will more likely be the mundane but necessary task of toting things from place to place. The economics of replacing thousands of salary-drawing and benefit-requiring humans in the logistics chain are greatly favored compared to the profits to be made by providing a convenient and safe commuting experience to individuals. Advances made in automating deliveries will eventually trickle down to the consumer market, but it’ll be the freight carriers that drive innovation.
While I’ve concentrated on self-driving freight vehicles, there are other aspects to automating the supply chain that I’ve touched on in this series, from UAV-delivered blood and medical supplies to the potential for automating the last hundred feet of home delivery with curb-to-door robots. But automation of the other end of the supply chain holds a lot of promise too, both for advancing technology and disrupting the entire logistics field. This time around: automated packaging lines, or how the stuff you buy online gets picked and wrapped for shipping without ever being touched by human hands.
Continue reading “Automate The Freight: Amazon’s Robotic Packaging Lines”