When put together, a series of seemingly unrelated news stories over the last few months point to what could be a radically different future for the logistics industry and many companies’ supply chains.
The UK’s Department for Transport announced in the press that the 2016 budget statement was likely to include funding for trials of driverless lorries on the M6 motorway. If this happens, the UK would join Germany, where Daimler started similar testing late last year. Long distance travel on motorways is widely believed to be the most promising opportunity for autonomous vehicles, not least because of the ability to couple multiple vehicles together for lengthy periods of time. Progress towards driverless vehicles would also help off-set the shortage of drivers which is now threatening the industry in some countries.
What seems to have been forgotten so far is how operating autonomous vehicles on long distance motorway trips would be combined with the local trips necessary to pick up and deliver their loads. One of the huge advantages road haulage has over rail is the avoidance of transhipment delays and costs. The obvious solution would be to make the vehicles suitable for manual control and employ locally based drivers at either end of the trip. However, other options are emerging which might be much more efficient.
Uber has already announced it is entering the local delivery market with its Uber rush service and the European Union is also funding research in this area. More interestingly, the fragmentation of the road haulage industry and the large number of self-employed drivers means that even haulage of container sized loads might be open to “uberisation”. There are already a variety of apps available aiming to put shippers in touch with local haulers including Cargomatic and Transfix. Although the sums of money involved are relatively small so far, the fact the venture capital is supporting multiple start-ups suggests this is a viable business opportunity.
The use of an Uber-like service for local collection and delivery together with autonomous vehicles on the long-distance legs would completely alter the cost base of many of the logistics majors. For example, they might end up running the capital investment-intensive long haul networks in-house using autonomous vehicles, leaving local pick-up and delivery to a network of self-employed owner-drivers asked via software apps. Ironically, that model would not be too distant from the way the railways used to run when they handled large volumes of less than truck-load traffic.