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Automation is the buzzword in the logistics sector today. Machines are playing an ever-greater role inside the warehouse, and now they’re preparing to roll out of the door and onto the roads.
California recently moved to allow vehicle manufacturers to test self-driving delivery trucks on public roads, but our National Industrial Delivery Manager Matthew Cox says the disruption they will bring to the logistics sector is not yet widely appreciated.
“It’s hard to foresee all the ramifications, just how much the industry will change when for example long-haul trucks can travel continuously, stopping only for fuel or to recharge, or when vans can operate as automated distribution centres.’’ says Matthew.
“Imagine for example a scenario where Australia Post’s lockers can move. Customers could make slots available and then receive a text to say ‘hi, your parcel’s ready for collection at the front of your house’.’’
Autonomous vehicles may be inevitable, but it’s still unclear precisely when they will overtake human drivers or just how the transition will work.
Tim Charlton is a senior consultant with XAct Solutions, a supply chain consultancy with clients across the Asia-Pacific region that has worked many times with Charter Hall. He says there are still several hurdles to overcome.
“Autonomous trucks may be in testing, but from the public's perspective it will be some time before they’re comfortable with a B-double or B-triple rolling down the highway on autopilot".
“And at the other end, if you think about the last mile, an autonomous delivery vehicle has some challenges too. It can only get it to the front of my house or my unit block, it can't get it to my door. This is why the likes of the courier companies don't yet see an imminent threat, although some are beginning to invest in the final steps to develop a competitive advantage.’’
It’s foreseeable that a self-driving truck could deliver to a dedicated apartment building facility fitted with lockers, he says. “But then you start talking about the economics around the cost of that real estate, and whether it’s worth more to developers than another café or another couple of units.’’
Matthew believes there will be limitations to automated last-mile for many years to come. “It’s relatively easy to deliver a fridge to someone’s house, but it’s a lot more difficult to get it into the kitchen.’’
Donal Challoner, director of architectural firm Nettletontribe, says while the end game may be unclear, robots are already edging closer to taking the wheel on Australia’s roads.
“You can see it happening in the ports and intermodals,’’ he says. “At Botany some container cranes are automated, loading containers onto trucks.
“And then you have Qube’s Moorebank facility,’’ says Challenor, referring to Qube Holdings’ revolutionary project in south-western Sydney which promises to be world’s first fully automated intermodal terminal, where self-driving cranes and ‘auto-shuttles’ will transport containers around the facility.
Once Australia legislates to allow local trials of self-driving vehicles on our streets, it will become clearer which players are technologically ready and brave enough to go first. Challenor suspects it may be the retailers.
“Having worked with many of the major local retailers, I know they are all investing in finding the technology to make these things happen,’’ says Challenor.
“They will probably tend to peel things off very slowly so as not to create too many shockwaves. Perhaps with a few trucks running at three o'clock in the morning, then moving on to other non-peak times.’’
Matthew also points to delivery companies such as UPS and FedEx and DHL as other possible first adopters. “We know they are also investing in the technology and that they see automation changing the way they do business.”
“When self-driving trucks arrive, it is going to be transformational, not just for the industry but for the whole of society.’’