Advances in technology and automation are fast approaching the logistics sector. Alphabet, Google’s new parent company, has received a patent for an automated package delivery system, essentially a way to robotize last mile delivery. The company is also working on developing a fully autonomous vehicle, taking drivers out of the equation. Meanwhile, Amazon already uses robots in some of its warehouses and is in the process of adding more machines. From these two companies alone, that is a potentially large amount of the supply chain that will not need human workers. Even though Alphabet owns the patent, that does not mean the company is ready to move into production of automated delivery vehicles. For one thing, the patent only clearly addresses one aspect of the machine, the system of pre-loaded lockers that would let customers access their own purchase using a PIN number or a credit card number. The lockers would ride on a fully autonomous car, small truck, or van supervised remotely through an advanced version of telematics—but such a vehicle does not quite exist and the patent does not specify how one would work. Company representatives are also careful to point out that they apply for a lot of patents and not all of them will ever actually be developed. Robotic delivery will depend not only on whether Alphabet gets its self-driving cars fully road ready, but also on how transportation policy ultimately adapts to such technology. The former seems all but inevitable (self-driving cars are already being tested by a variety of companies and are reportedly doing well), but the latter is far from certain. For example, if a driverless car caused an accident, who would be legally responsible for damages? We as a society might decide that even a car that can drive itself needs a responsible human in the driver’s seat. The development of this technology will have a direct impact on chain service providers including food delivery, the postal service, and others. Unlike people, machines don’t require a 401K or paid holidays. Thus automating package delivery is becoming an attractive low-cost alternative. Both Google and Amazon’s new ventures are worth observing as they develop, if they develop. They are among the top global companies who have set the stage in technology and innovation. Amazon serves as the most prominent e-retailer, and the word “search” has become one and the same as the word “Google”. These two companies could serve as examples of what to expect years from now. Amazon’s automated warehouses still require humans for more complex tasks. The robots, which are something like a cross between a Roomba and a forklift, only bring crates or “pods” of goods to human workers for sorting and packaging. Alphabet’s delivery platform would need a human to manage the many moving assets, and would probably require a person to help load. The “robot apocalypse” is not here, yet, but a major change in the basic economics of logistics is arising.
*About the Author: Rich Lambourne is the Director of Fulfillment at Teletrac. He is an expert in Supply chain and logistics.