There are a lot of eager eyes watching the development of autonomous vehicles (or self driving cars, to keep it simple) and betting on how soon they will hit the roads as mainstream – or at least in significant volumes to ensure they are treated as acceptably normal with respect to conventional cars. Despite the advancement and depth of technology involved, it is often said that the human element is the biggest challenge. The ideal vehicle will be expected to not just interface in a level-appropriate manner with the passengers inside, but also negotiate its path with reference to other people, vehicles and objects which will be on the road it navigates. What-if scenarios have questioned not just the technical capabilities but also the ethical decision making programmed into these vehicles.
There is a significant divergence between adoption of autonomous vehicles for passenger travel – which falls at the extreme end of the regulatory compliance and quality expectations spectrum – and cargo movement, which may be slightly closer to the middle of the scale in those terms. But once the system achieves a sufficient level of maturity, air cargo companies have a clear opportunity to integrate autonomous vehicles into the supply chain. The objective is to enhance the quality of last mile delivery service paradigms, thereby improving overall service levels and enabling more trust in their delivery mechanisms. Not only can this make the conventionally labour intensive process more efficient, but also allows increased integrity and security through eliminating the opportunity for malicious human intervention.
Aside from the direct value addition to the cargo supply chain, such an adoption of autonomous vehicles into the service paradigm would also serve as a tangible showcase for the autonomous vehicle technology which could then go on to redefine several industries in the broader society.
Availability of technology is hardly the challenge for widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles. Given the general lack of trust in a fully machine controlled vehicle, as well as the regulatory pressures that reflect the lack of familiarity with such a paradigm, there has to be a structured approach for the concept to gain some traction in society. Last mile delivery of cargo provides a good pilot platform to demonstrate the value of the concept in a reasonable environment, establish clear solutions to the anticipated challenges and thereby ease its introduction into the mainstream.
Removing passenger movement from the equation, and focussing on freight movement as the sole goal instead, has two clear effects on the entire system. Not only will it immediately relieve autonomous vehicles from a lot of the regulatory pressures which have been placed on them at the moment, but it will also reduce the demand for large upfront investment in infrastructure which is necessary to enable the system. A viable approach for this would be to introduce the system in a controlled environment, such as commercially significant zones which tend to have a high traffic of freight. Good examples are the use of autonomous vehicles for freight movement within airports, or in a factory which ships out a large amount of goods, or some consolidated warehousing facility which expects a lot of incoming freight traffic. Last mile delivery extending to the homes of consignees (where transaction volumes are lesser) can be a later stage goal.
In the absence of a significant human population, the system is not subject to as much regulation or rules as it would have been for use in a public area such as a city centre or a residential neighbourhood. At the same time the concept can be demonstrated in the real world scenario and also initiate a certain level of familiarity in people, in preparation for its eventual broader adoption.
The goal of effective integration of technology-based last mile delivery puts two distinct types of demands on the system. One is the introduction of a sufficiently advanced technological module (device/vehicle) that enables the achievement of the goal and the other is to effectively connect this module into the entire system in a manner that makes the exchange of signals and data possible in an efficient manner.
In the next part of this blog series, we shall go into deeper detail about these two distinct demands placed on the chain.
Ashok Rajan is Senior Vice President & Head of Airline Cargo Services line of business at IBS. An accomplished specialist in the Travel & Transportation domain, he has a track record of 18+ years in conceptualizing and building products for the industry. Having played multiple roles in the organization from development to product management to running transition programs for customers, Ashok is involved with building and executing the strategy for the flag-ship iCargo product line of the company.