Will It Really Happen?

Will It Really Happen?
Autonomous vehicles are unlikely to be part of the parts delivery process, at least for the foreseeable future. (Photo: Ford Motor Company)

Self-driving cars are a hot topic, but will they become the norm for parts deliveries?

I don’t see it in the near future,” says Allan Wood, Branch Manager, Ideal Supply in Orangeville, Ont. “The industry is changing so much, but we always go back to the old things.”

One of the issues that may hold AV parts deliveries back is that many methods are being tested in scenarios that don’t involve people.

Delivery as a service

This concept becomes tougher when an autonomous vehicle must make the rounds to a number of businesses, handing out something as large as a hood to one, and as small as brake pads to another. Not only that, but shops are used to a parts delivery driver bringing the items inside as part of the service. If they haven’t installed a drop box to accommodate a robotic arm, they’ll have to take somebody away from the job to go out and unload the parts from the delivery vehicle—something many time-strapped shops aren’t going to want to do.

Beyond that, Wood says that AV deliveries eliminate the human aspect of the process. He sees that as integral to the business no matter how automated it becomes.

“We pride ourselves on relationships, and an unmanned vehicle can’t do that,” he says. “People forget to order something, some small incidental stuff, and our drivers come back and communicate with counter staff and we make it happen. I think this business is so touchpoint-based and that would be losing one of these touchpoints.”

Wood, who comes from a restaurant background, explains, “You can cook the best meal possible, but if the server’s slow bringing it, it’s the worst meal. It’s the same with parts. Our drivers have that relationship and trust with those people.”

Longer than you think

Human drivers can also quickly change their routes as necessary, such as when an order farther down in the queue suddenly becomes a priority. Autonomous cars can have their routes reprogrammed, of course, but this would now have to be done remotely. In contrast, a human driver can make those decisions on the fly.

Of course, all of this is going to be speculation for a while—and it’s likely going to take longer than most proponents of driverless vehicles may be predicting.

Currently, vehicles with semi-autonomous features, such as adaptive cruise control or lane-centering, are reactive: they detect traffic ahead and they “read” lane markings. To be truly self-driving, a vehicle will have to be proactive instead, to deal with all possible scenarios and in any type of weather. It will need to communicate with infrastructure and with other vehicles; it will need roads equipped with smart traffic signals and beacons; its navigation systems will have to be far more precise than they are now; and it will require artificial intelligence to deal with other road users that aren’t programmable, including pedestrians and conventional vehicles, driven by humans, that will operate alongside them for many years.

Parts by air?

There’s also a possibility that some parts won’t arrive by vehicle, but by air instead. Drone delivery, while still nowhere near the readiness level promised by its advocates, is another concept being pushed forward. Drone Delivery Canada, based in Toronto, has signed a commercial agreement with Moose Cree First Nation for drone deliveries to the northern Ontario communities of Moose Factory and Moosonee.

The downside is that drones are limited in how much they can carry, which limits their viability in the auto supply industry. They’re also more affected by inclement weather than a vehicle. Still, they’re poised to become part of last-mile solutions when they finally arrive.

“I think this is all cool, but at the end of the day, I feel that you still need that human interaction,” says Wood.

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