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Drones, trains and automobiles: Optimizing last-mile delivery logistics

When experts talk about sustainable transportation and solving traffic woes, most of them concentrate on personal cars and public transit. But there’s another piece of the puzzle that needs to be addressed: last-mile logistics.

That’s the name given to the final delivery of goods as they’re shipped from warehouses to stores, restaurants, businesses or private homes. About 20 per cent of all city traffic is related to last-mile delivery, so optimizing it could reduce the number of trucks on our streets and the corresponding traffic congestion, as well as cut down significantly on emissions and air pollution.

“The right vehicles need to be used for each type of (cargo) movement, so customers can select the most convenient commercial vehicles in each situation,” says Yoshihide Maeda, senior managing director for truck manufacturer Hino Motors. “When you’re talking about the future, you cannot avoid the issues of energy and the environment.”

Currently, the general business model is to store items in warehouses until a customer orders them, and then load them onto a truck for delivery.

Although the first miles of delivery, from the factory to the warehouse, are fairly efficient (with ships, trains and tractor-trailers usually filled completely on each trip), last-mile deliveries are often made using large or medium-sized trucks loaded to only a fraction of their capacity.

One solution, Maeda says, is for fleets to include a variety of vehicles and use the appropriate one for each task.

“Conventionally, diesel has been used for everything, but there may be better choices for other distances,” he says. “Electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids are convenient for high-frequency, small-item delivery in cities. Then you would use hybrid vehicles or (hydrogen) fuel cells for medium distances, and diesel will continue for long distance.”

Although vehicles play a major role in the issue, experts agree that infrastructure needs to change as well. Last-mile deliveries can bottleneck when retailers don’t have sufficient loading docks or storage space, so wholesalers have to keep sending partially loaded trucks.

Other potential solutions include manufacturers pooling their warehousing and deliveries to retailers; setting up “package stations” where retailers or consumers can pick up their products; designing stores to be better equipped for efficient last-mile delivery; and trucks with modular loading for improved capacity.

Of course, there will be challenges, and planners will have to solve such issues as the costs of retrofitting existing fleets and stores, as well as convincing competitors to work together on shared resources.

Optimized options

  • France’s postal system uses a variety of vehicles for last-mile delivery, including small electric cargo vans for parcels and mailbags, and electric-assist bicycles for letter carriers.
  • Drones will play a role with inner-city deliveries, as well as carrying food and medicine to remote areas or people trapped in disaster zones.
  • Compact cargo vans, such as Ford’s Transit Connect and Nissan’s NV200, have already helped optimize small-item deliveries for many Canadian companies.

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