When can I expect a robot to knock on my front door, holding my Amazon package?

Spoiler alert: Ehhh, probably not that soon.

Thanks for bearing with my last blog on the potential for blockchain to transform the logistics & parcel delivery business. I’ve heard your poll results loud and clear: this time, you’re going to get the even more fun stuff. I’m going to cover a couple core buckets of emerging technologies that have potential to disrupt the industry, and give my verdict on whether we’ll see the tech now, soon, or later, and the potential size of its impact.

Autonomous vehicles

As I talked about in my presentation a few weeks back, finding, hiring, and retaining truck drivers is perhaps the number one issue at the moment for FedEx, UPS, Amazon, DHL, and more. A match made in heaven, therefore, should be the buzz behind self-driving cars, and the need for people to drive trucks – a few companies like Waymo, Aurora, and TuSimple, believe so at least. According to business insider, long-haul trucking applications of self-driving technology actually have less complex issues to solve for than your average self-driving car, and we could see them in use even sooner. This makes sense because “over-the-road” trucking, meaning long trips on straight highways across country, without stopping, are easier to solve for than the last-mile, which would require simulating your local USPS driver parking, getting out of his car, and delivering a package to your doorstep. We won’t see robots doing that any time soon.  I personally tend to be a bit more skeptical, especially when most of these companies are only at the Tesla “autopilot” stage of driver assistance, not pure autonomy. We will see about adoption of this, because the stakes are certainly high when you’re talking about large shipments – both from a contents liability standpoint, and frankly a human life safety standpoint, if something were to go wrong with a massive truck. In the real world, UPS has been using Waymo vehicles to move volume via vans from UPS Store locations to hub facilities, and FedEx has been testing Aurora trucks across Texas (with a human driver on board just in case). Companies are also testing smaller vehicles to move things around on-site at their hubs too.

We can also lump drones into this category, as autonomous vehicles technically. UPS Flight Forward is already operating in NC and Florida, delivering prescription drugs. FedEx has a little sidewalk autonomous bot called Roxo that is being tested in Tokyo, which is basically a walking drone, not flying. Drones are what’s hot in the streets, with even Google and Walgreens getting into the game with a partnership. Where autonomous trucks solve for LTL delivery, drones can help with the last-mile delivery. I’ll be curious to see how soon they can get approved for metro areas, and add capacity.

FedEx Roxo bot

Side-note on autonomous cargo ships (shout out to @parkerrepko for tweeting me about this): I did some more digging, and it looks like the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA), led by Rolls-Royce interestingly enough, is heading up projects on this. In this whitepaper, they detail plans for combating some of the largest challenges around legalities (international waters), security (think pirates), and safety (self-monitoring and optimizing ship conditions using sensors and external data like weather). It’s worth a read, and another potential great application.

Timeline: later

Impact: large

Robots

Second to finding truck drivers is finding people to work in the warehouse. We’ve all read about the horror stories that happen in Amazon warehouses – people being forced to work 12 hours straight, no bathroom, eating, or water; consistent issues with injuries related to the speed with which they are forced to operate. Conditions that leave workers saying, “I am not a robot”. Well, guess who is a robot? A robot, that’s who. And they have the potential to significantly augment the work humans do in these warehouses, to improve conditions, make life easier, and allow them to focus on more human-centric tasks. From a business perspective, they can also significantly reduce errors and improve efficiencies.

To hear Gregory Brown, VP and head of the UPS Global Advanced Technology Group (ATG) tell it, robotics and automation are about unlocking autonomy within the network. UPS uses machine vision to identify different types of packages, and real-time processing to understand how to deal with, for example, a corrugated box vs a polybag, and both sort and handle the packages accordingly. Another source discusses the potential for autonomous warehouse robots to gather data as they work throughout the different operations, and provide managers insight into best practices and areas for efficiency improvement. Essentially they can produce a digital twin of a warehouse environment to test implications of different defects or changes to process.  This could get a bit apocalypse-y when the robots begin self-optimizing based on that data, and I’ve love to hear some feedback from you all on how we balance the power we give robots.  

robot apocalypse

Now, I’ll just note here, this is actually probably one of those situations where “the robots are coming for our jobs” more than others,  but it shouldn’t mean the warehouse workers lose their jobs. Instead, companies like Amazon are investing heavily (to the tune of $700M in this case) to retrain their fulfillment hub workers to do jobs like IT or customer service. This is a win-win, because their warehouses can operate more efficiently (not to mention the reduced liability) with more robots and less humans, plus humans can make more money, have less physically grueling careers, and learn new skills in different areas to make them more attractive on the job market.

Timeline: now

Impact: medium-large

Conclusion

Well, I planned on covering a bunch more technologies, but here we are, and I’m way over the words limit already. Guess I’ll work on my conciseness. Anyway, in particular, I missed augmented reality being used for things like mechanical improvements & maintenance (@ravidjain weigh in), sensors & IoT being the key driver of all of this robotic and autonomous technology, and even 3D printing. Feel free to drop me a comment if there’s any other cool tech you guys have seen in this space, that I missed.

I hope you enjoyed this one, and I’ll be back in a few weeks with the final blog of the series – looking at COVIDs effect on small businesses – the other side of the same coin, if you will.

4 comments

  1. Autonomous vehicles are betting on safety. With cars unable to maneuver obstacles on the road, I don’t think I’ll ever trust autonomous trucks. Here’s another analogy–how many times have you walked and tripped on the sidewalk, or rode a bike and lost control on a turn?–if we can’t control accidents as humans for regular day to day activities, how can we and why we should we trust self driving cars with our lives on the line? I am a huge fan of seeing the prescription delivery system being used in more cities, but who’s to say it won’t be ran over by a car turning and not seeing a robo-human walking across the sidewalk. As much as I hate truck drivers and UPS/FedEx/Amazon delivery drivers on the road, I’ll take that over autonomous vehicles any day.

    1. You definitely raise a very good point around loss of physical accountability with autonomous transports. Specifically with small delivery systems like drones and the little MSE-6 droid (Star Wars nerd, had to do it) FedEx robots, if they lose contact with the network then that payload is now completely unaccounted for… not having your products go missing while en-route is the golden rule of e-commerce delivery. If this is to succeed mainstream, I believe strict protocols or assurances against these scenarios must be in place. Without addressing the potential for losing a parcel, the longevity of the solution does not seem to be that high.

  2. Great read! You made some excellent points. In particular, the one related to long-haul trucking applications of self-driving technology has less complex issues to deal with than those for self-driving cars. I believe we will see this type of autonomous truck on the road sooner than we think, but I believe that a great way to get the ball rolling will be trying this technology in less populated states like Alaska. Also, I am not sure how they will solve the issue of the last mile due to the high complexity of that step in the journey.

  3. Great topic! The need for more labor to meet demand is prevalent in many industries…especially with the holiday season upon us. Our blogs somewhat correlate this week! I wrote about social robots and cultural acceptance. I think the US is becoming more comfortable with AI assistance because the perception of robots is less threatening today. AI doesn’t necessarily mean taking jobs away. And, from an economist stance, even if it did it should still be implemented if on the margin it provides a significantly higher level of production.

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