Autonomous-vehicle and drone technologies have been advancing steadily in recent years. The coronavirus pandemic, however, could serve to accelerate development of those innovations, particularly in a time when “no-touch” delivery options are highly desired. In this conversation with SupplyChainBrain Editor-in-Chief Bob Bowman, Dan Khasis, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Route4Me, outlines the pros and cons of the still-developing technology’s ability to bridge the “last mile” to the e-commerce customer.
SCB: What role are drones and autonomous vehicles playing in the current coronavirus pandemic?
Khasis: From my perspective, it's mostly marketing at this point, from companies and startups who have some type of technology.
SCB: You would think it would be an ideal solution when we're in a low-touch or no-touch environment, would you not? Does it not seem like a good answer to that problem?
Khasis: When you're planning a route for an order, you can indicate in the app that you want it to be no-touch delivery or pickup. The customer can also request that. So you can effectuate no-touch with existing human-based systems.
SCB: So where are we with regard to the maturity of the technology?
Khasis: With current autonomous and flying drones, it’s still very nascent and hyped up. It’s good marketing both for the startups and larger companies that are making announcements. But they really have no economic traction — they're a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of what's actually happening.
SCB: And the vehicles and drones still aren’t completely autonomous?
Khasis: With some of these startups, they have people sitting in a dark room somewhere, driving the drones with a joystick. It's not all artificial intelligence, avoiding people and crowds, and deploying everything magically. It's still humans with remote control — more like a video game.
SCB: Referring to the Gartner Hype Cycle, does that mean the technology is currently in the so-called Trough of Disappointment?
Khasis: Yes, I think so. I'm sure there have been some success stories out there that gave good press. But we had a large ethanol-manufacturing client with plants in Kansas and Texas, and we asked them, "Is this is the perfect place for you guys to use drones to do some things?” And they said, "No, forget that." They had huge trucks traveling 70 miles an hour on 24-inch tires, carrying parts that might weigh a hundred pounds. They didn't need drones. It wasn’t practical at that point.
SCB: Between drones and autonomous vehicles, which one bears more promise for the near term?
Khasis: Obviously with autonomous vehicles, no one's at level five autonomy. And even if anyone were at level four or five, there would still be a lot of regulatory hurdles to jump through. While some vehicle manufacturers advertise that they’re capable of level four and five from a hardware perspective, the software isn't ready yet. It's going to happen; the question is when. I do think, though, that there’s a much bigger opportunity for autonomous vehicles than for drones. There are biological safety and isolation advantages. And you don't have to worry about running out of power. Autonomous ground vehicles make the most sense in areas where you have lockers. On the flip side is, they’re not suited to rural areas, where you would have to drive 80 miles but could fly there much faster.
SCB: Going forward, what is the ideal setting for this technology? Is it an urban environment, or more suburban? And what types of products are best suited for this technology?
Khasis: There are positives and negatives. In urban settings, you have the advantage of high density. We have customers that get a hundred deliveries or service calls to one building. But then your truck is full going in, and you have nothing left to deliver after you service that one building. You're done by, say, 11:00 am. Which is in stark contrast to a suburban or rural situation, where density is super low, delivery locations are far apart, and the placement of the originating depot or distribution center is critical. You might do only seven or eight stops per hour. But there’s no driver fatigue, labor costs aren’t high, and you can deliver to the doorstep in many areas. Whereas in cities, when people live on the fifth floor, what are you going to do? That autonomous vehicle, even if it's the smartest one in the galaxy, still can't open a door and walk up the stairs or go into an elevator. And if it could, how much is that unit going to cost? So I guess it depends on what market you want to serve.
SCB: What about drones — where they might be of most promising use?
Khasis: Again, it’s in those areas that are very rural or suburban, where you can do a straight shot and bring something that's very light. On the other hand, drones have a finite ability to go somewhere, and that's assuming there's no wind, rain or snow. So you still need a distribution center that’s kind of close to your target customer. At some point you’re saying, “I could carry this package for this distance, but after that it's diminishing returns." Because after that, you might as well send a guy to drive.
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