City logistics: light, electric, connected, autonomous and shared?

A new paper by Varma and Combes from IFFSTTAR discusses the questions: is a transition to Autonomous, Connected, Electric and Shared (AECS) LCV’s in the context of city logistics feasible? The impact of new technologies, services (such as the rise of instant deliveries, and AECS, is currently uncertain, and should be assessed in the long term.

LCVs play an important role in the distribution of goods and delivering all kinds of services (from plumbing to machine repair) within cities. Compared with  2009, the use of light commercial vehicles has significantly increased. Additional factors such as congestion and tolling of truck use have also played a role. Due to congestion and the better maneuverability of vans compared with trucks in congested areas and inner cities, the higher driver costs of trucks in some countries, make the use of LCVs more attractive. LCVs are smaller than regular trucks, which are suited for electric driving but have a smaller payload.

Autonomous vehicles

The economics of AECS vehicles are rather complex. Based on the available literature, it is difficult to argue that autonomous vehicles will not be both useful or used in logistics. Studies on vehicle automation technology, liability and legislative challenges, along with the ethics and human factors challenges applied to the usage and potential consequences of AVs for the logistics industry and conclude that it is evident that adoption often AVs holds the promise of completely innovating the way in which mobility and transportation logistics are dealt with.

It is important to distinguish between various kinds of LCV users to be able to envision the changes, as the diversity of uses of LCV’s leads to the vehicle being used in considerably different ways. Take the case of mobile workers, which represent about 25% of the active population of LCVs. These mobile workers may displace themselves due to their primary activity or their secondary activity.

Urban freight

Urban freight is an activity with the most potential for disruption with AECS due to automation as the component of services offered by the driver (apart from driving) can be relatively easily automated. Indeed, various companies continue to experiment with various alternatives. Apart from companies such as Waymo which are working on automation of personnel transport, other companies are working especially on delivering urban freight. For example, Nuro a start-up based in Arizona recently raised almost a billion dollars for their local goods delivery vehicle. Mercedes has successfully demonstrated a service that integrates a drone and an autonomous LCV to deliver small parcels. Renault, under the aegis of CityPod has been working on a modular autonomous vehicle, with similar loading volumes as an LCV.

Future perspective

A transition to AECS LCV’s in urban logistics is conceivable. This transformation will create value for various actors in both the supply and demand chain. Consumers could expect faster, less noisy, less polluting deliveries and a less congested urban environment at a lower cost, while suppliers and OEM’s could see changes in various aspects of their operations, including lower operating costs.
However, the eminent role of regulation will define and decide various aspects of this transition. While the benefits of a few aspects of this transition are straightforward, it is evident that the question of whether it will fulfill the optimistic expectations of the actors and public remains complex. Another aspect not mentioned, but of importance is the role of new business models for different mobility solutions; vehicle-as-a-service.
Future research, which could compare scenarios on changing use of AECS LCV’s, multi-modal deliveries, geographic sensitivity, changing OEM roles, new business models and the impact of regulation.

Source: Varma and Combes from IFFSTTAR (2020)


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