Google's self-driving truck set to disrupt last-mile delivery?

February 16, 2016 Pieter Kinds

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Google seem to have made a significant step in the direction of worldwide last mile-delivery domination.

A new patent awarded to the tech gigant last week raises questions if Google is the latest company to enter the last mile fight with a self-driving delivery truck.

Google office

An abstract from the patent describes “An autonomous road vehicle is operative to receive destination information, and to drive to a destination based on the destination information. A package securing subsystem is attached to the autonomous road vehicle and comprises at least one securable compartment.”

To ensure the safe delivery of the parcel shipment, the document further states a system that will allow customers to enter a pin number into a keypad, opening a locker from which customers can collect their packages. It also suggests that an NFC reader or credit card could be used to unlock the correct package locker. According to US Patent registration, the driverless car-delivery was invented by Jussi Myllymaki, a retired software engeneer who lives in Helsinki. He worked for Google for around 10 years, and wrote mulitiple of patents including a system for ‘communication of information that has particular significance to a specific location only to those individuals that are at or near that geo-spatial location’, a method for allowing client applications to programmatically access websites, and an anti-tracking system for consumer privacy.

Google driverless truck
Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office - Patent No.: US 9,256,852 B1

The future: drones, robots or driverless cars?

Professionals in the retail fulfilment enviroment know that the last mile delivery is of key importance, but are also aware of the challenges relating to it. In the case of the driverless truck patent of Google, what the document doesn't make clear is the extent to which Google is actually going to fulfill an active and direct role in the last mile delivery of parcels. Frankly, Google's self-driving delivery truck seems to be among the ambitious solutions in an environment where many global players are experimenting.

More likely to play an active role is Amazon.com. The company is aggressively expanding its logistics operations as part of a broader effort to control the rising cost of shipping billions of packages. The Seattle-based company faces increasing pressure from Wall Street to drive down shipping costs, which rose 37 percent in the most recent quarter compared to the same period a year ago. The retailer operates more than 120 fulfillment centers worldwide that hold millions of products supplied by third-party merchants and Amazon's own vendors.

As we all know, Amazon has yet set plans in the skies. Amazon is planning a delivery system that will use drones to deliver packages in 30 minutes or less. The e-commerce giant has said that putting the drone service into practice will take time, but that it will deploy when the company has “regulatory support”.

Amazon Prime Air

And then there is Starship, an Estonian venture of two former Skype co-founders, Heinla and Janus Friis. They claim to make make local deliveries efficient, safe, low emission, and, crucially to the industry, as cheap as possible. The two developers revealed their prototype of their self-driving delivery robot in November 2015.

"Local delivery is a perfect example of an industry which can be disrupted using robotics," Starship Technologies COO Allan Martinson says. "Robotics is already on a level where we can build these robots and technologically it will be cheap enough to do deliveries for the last three to four miles for less than £1 ($1.45). It's 10 to 15 times cheaper than human-powered delivery."

ControlPay freight audit & payment - Skype co-founders
Image: Starship Technologies

Google's role in the last mile

But there is more from Google that just the self-driving truck, apparently, the company is working hard to develop a solution to hybridize airborne drones and machines on wheels. According to a PSFK article, Google has filed another patent for a "delivery receptacle." In order to mitigate concerns over drones falling out of the sky with packages, the receptacle rolls on the ground, locating drones via beacon; then accepting drop-offs and moving the package to a secure location for pickup.

If Google however is going to play a role is rather questionable. The fact is that the company has invested heavily in driverless technology, StreetView, its comprehensive maps, and Google Earth. Sean Fleming, from eDelivery has an interesting view on the developments of Google.

"it’s a safer bet to expect to see Google as a provider of technology – an enabler – that will allow retailers and carriers to embrace the brave new world of driverless vehicles without all the R&D associated. Your shopping is more likely to be delivered by a driverless van powered by Google but branded and operated by a more familiar carrier name, than delivered in a vehicle displaying the Google livery."

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