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Self-driving mail trucks

Blog

Self-driving mail trucks

Ian Kerr

Deutsche Post DHL Group plans to deploy a test fleet of autonomous delivery trucks, starting in 2018.

DPDHL will outfit some of its StreetScooters with a self-driving system from automotive supplier ZF, for automating package transportation and delivery, including the last mile.

DPDHL currently has a fleet of 5,000 StreetScooter electric delivery vehicles. According to DPDHL, costs for maintenance and wear are 60% - 80% lower than for similar conventional vehicles.

According to DPDHL's estimates, switching to StreetScooters has resulted in an annual reduction of more than 16,000 tons of carbon emissions. And the electric vehicles are quieter than diesel or petrol powered vehicles. Are they quieter than a postie pedalling a pushbike up a hill? Hmm.

By turning the StreetScooter into an autonomous vehicle, DPDHL reckons deliveries can be made with greater accuracy and safety, and at lower cost.

The StreetScooter vehicles can be fitted with multiple sensors, including cameras, lidar (light detection and ranging) and radar. This enables the vehicle to use AI to understand its environment, plan a safe path forward, proceed along a selected route and park itself.

"Goods can be delivered independent of the time of the day and delivery staff, with minimal noise and emissions, thus significantly reducing traffic congestion in city centres," said Stefan Sommer, CEO of ZF.

To develop these AI delivery vehicles, DPDHL has already configured its data centre with the NVIDIA DGX-1TM AI supercomputer for training its neural networks. It will then run its deep learning models on the truck's NVIDIA DRIVE PX platform.

The US Postal Service is also going autonomous

The US Postal Service is partnering with the University of Michigan on a prototype Autonomous Rural Delivery Vehicle. Under the agreement, the university is engineering the prototype from scratch based on postal specifications.

The carrier would sit behind the wheel, sort mail on the move, and deliver through the window while the vehicle handles the driving.

We'll discuss this and more with the USPS OIG on a future episode of the Postal Hub Podcast.

Will there still be a human delivering letters?

The DPDHL vehicle might be autonomous, but it seems likely that there will still be a human on board, ready to leap out every time the vehicle stops to deliver letters and parcels.

The US Postal Service / University of Michigan vehicle is being designed to work with a delivery officer on board, who will not only do deliveries but also be expected to be ready to take control of the vehicle at any time.

The StreetScooter could become a mobile launching pad for wheeled robots and airborne drones, but let's be frank, the loading process for drones is still too slow.

And no postal or parcel operator is likely to test a system of catapulting parcels from the delivery vehicle to customers' porches or back yards.

So, for now at least, it looks like there will still be a person doing the last part of the last mile. But for how long?