Self-driving vehicles might seem like a plot device in a science fiction movie -- think iRobot or Total Recall – but actually, they’re already here. Google and other companies have been testing driverless vehicles for several years, and some aspects of semi-autonomous vehicle technology, like automatic parallel parking, are available in some new cars.

Analysts expect autonomous vehicle technology to hit the roads big time in the next few years, which could signal major changes for the shipping and transportation industries and supply chains. Earlier this year, Daimler became the first manufacturer to be granted a road license for an autonomous heavy-duty truck. The trucking industry –critical to U.S. Postal Service operations – could benefit from these technologies. Autonomous vehicles are designed to improve safe driving, and testing indicates they are involved in fewer accidents. The technology is expected to cut down on fuel costs by facilitating more efficient control of speed, including rate of braking and acceleration.

That’s not all. The technology could enable automated truck convoys, which would consist of a driver in a lead truck setting the pace and taking over the steering, acceleration, and braking of a line of trucks following closely behind. Drivers in those trucks can rest until their respective turns to lead, thus improving productivity.

Self-driving vehicles could take on the tasks of loading and unloading goods in warehouses. Kiva, a warehouse automation system that Amazon acquired in 2012, uses autonomous vehicle technology to transport movable shelves, retrieving products for the worker who keyed them into the system.

Autonomous technology could also revolutionize last mile delivery. DHL said in a 2014 report that it could eventually use specialized driverless cars to deliver packages to its centrally located, self-service Packstations. The company even suggested that one day the Packstations themselves could act as driverless cars, traveling across town delivering directly to wherever the customer is.

Some analysts believe that in the future, customers could rent shared autonomous vehicles and pre-program destinations for daily deliveries. Such a service would allow small businesses to offer a delivery service without having to maintain a fleet of delivery vehicles.

Driverless cars still face many hurdles – cost, technology, and regulatory, to name a few – before they are commonplace on U.S. highways. However, the technology has already shifted from hypothetical to reality, and it promises major changes in industries critical to the Postal Service. How do you see this technology changing the delivery market?

Comments (1)

  • anon

    Good article! You did not mentioned that self-driving cars could soon deliver the mail. Self-driving cars could be combined with robotic arms. New types of mailbox could be mandated by the postal service. All the pieces of the puzzle exist. This may displease the unions but at the very least someone should study this by providing grants to leading universities. Please see my blog post from five years ago.

    Mar 14, 2016

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