Smart cars need smarter roads
One of the many exciting parts of starting my new job at Ocado Technology has been the ability to go on a buddy route. For those who don’t work at Ocado, the buddy route offers new employees the option of accompanying one of our drivers on a delivery run.
Experiencing first-hand what it takes to get an order from an Ocado warehouse to a customer’s doorstep helped me form a few opinions when it comes to the future of transportation that I’d like to share with you.
Intelligent transportation at Ocado
Many people know Ocado from the brightly colored vans that travel the UK from one home to the next. However, not everyone gets the chance to ride in these vans or (literally) go under the hood (or bonnet, for my British readers).
Each Ocado van houses not only the different compartments needed for storing groceries but also a vast collection of sensors and embedded computing devices that stream information to the cloud in real-time.
Ocado Technology engineers have transformed these vans into a living, breathing network of IoT nodes that collects vast amounts of data about the UK transportation infrastructure. For example, these low-power embedded sensors constantly measure wheel speed, fuel consumption, engine revs, gear changes, braking and cornering speeds, bumps in the road, temperature, and other useful data. When correlated to the map of public roads in the UK, this information helps the Ocado Technology data science team figure out optimal routes for delivery so that drivers can actually fulfill the one-hour slot promise to customers.
The need for an infrastructure upgrade
After looking closely at various simulation models based on our route data, I believe we need to act more methodically about how we make cars smarter.
Implementing advanced computer vision capabilities is a step in the right direction for manufacturers looking to improve road safety. However, the self-driving cars of tomorrow may quickly find themselves stuck on the same congested roads we often experience today if the infrastructure doesn’t get a major upgrade as well.
If we want to fully realize the dream of drastically reducing (or even eliminating) road congestion in Europe and beyond, the computing we embed into our cars must be mirrored by a similar bump in the intelligence of our roads.
At Ocado, we’ve been building an infrastructure of connected vans which enables us to find the optimal routes I described earlier. Imagine if more (or all) cars driving on our public roads would have these sensors on board; we could then extend this concept to a larger scale and guide vehicles automatically on the best routes available. A simple sprinkle of smartness could make a big difference when it comes to driverless vehicles.
Finally, driverless vehicles are going to have to be way smarter because they will have to share the roads with cars driven by humans. We therefore need to develop new communications protocols that enable cars (driverless or not) to talk to each other and to the environment around them (e.g. traffic lights). One example of such a protocol is the 4G-based network we’ve built for the robots in our warehouse; its properties could be extended to handle the low-latency vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications protocols needed by the automotive market.
The economics of self-driving trucks
Whenever someone mentions Steven Spielberg, people automatically think of movies such as E.T., Jaws, Saving Private Ryan, Jurrasic Park or more recently Lincoln. For me, one of the definitive Spielberg classics remains Duel, a 1971 film where a businessman is relentlessly pursued by the malevolent driver of a truck, resulting in 74 minutes of cinema glory.
What makes the movie particularly interesting for me is the way Spielberg cleverly suggests the truck has a will and intelligence of its own - making it perhaps the first self-driving truck to be captured on film. Fast forward to several years ago, almost everyone involved in commercial transportation starts to get serious about the prospect of self-driving trucks.
As someone who’s worked in the past with companies developing technology for autonomous vehicles and is now part of an organization that relies heavily on transportation to grow its business, I believe there are indeed many benefits to deploying self-driving trucks on our roads.
Ocado and transportation
Before I get to the above topic however, I’d like to give you a short overview of our operational model to set the scene for the second part of this article.
Before we can get customers’ groceries into Ocado delivery vans, they first need to be shipped to one of our warehouses - we call them Customer Fulfilment Centers (or CFCs, for short). CFCs are where large orders get split into smaller deliveries thanks to a great team of dedicated people and a high degree of automation.
For our suppliers, the most common way of sending large quantities of products to our warehouses is to employ commercial trucks.
In addition to the CFCs, we also use our own trucks to transport products to smaller local distribution centers called spokes. You can think of a spoke as a very small warehouse where a large batch of orders comes in and then immediately gets distributed to our smaller vans.
The diagram below shows an overview of our entire distribution model and covers some of the points I’ve touched on in my introduction:
You can imagine that between goods coming into our warehouses and our warehouses sending larger orders to spokes, quite a few miles need to be travelled before our van drivers knock on your door to hand you the order.
Truck meets technology
Any company involved in long-distance haulage can attest to the inherent inefficiency of single-truck deliveries. One way to improve haulage management is to organize vehicles in fleet-type formations: the leading truck determines the fleet’s route and speed while the others receive instructions through a low latency wireless connection.
Even though self-driving trucks would have a high degree of automation on board, human drivers would still be able to assume control under certain conditions (e.g. if they would need to enter or exit the platoon formation).
A perfect analogy to describe the relationship between humans and self-driving trucks would be the fly-by-wire feature present in most aircraft today where the pilot assumes manual control only in exceptional circumstances while the computers handle most of the hard work.
The advantage of having such a convoy is that trucks drive at consistent speeds and on optimized routes, which would help relieve congestion on many European roads.
Self-driving truck convoys can benefit their human drivers too. Compared to the daily commute of regular motorists, trucks are driven mostly on highways for hours on end, making for a very uneventful and tiring journey for the person behind the wheel; many truck drivers are away from home for extended periods of time and can lead a very sedentary lifestyle.
Finally, self-driving truck convoys could dramatically improve road safety by reducing the number and severity of accidents caused by commercial vehicles.
Challenges under the hood
Before we get caught in the self-driving hype, there are still quite a few challenges we need to address first. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is the regulation needed to go from a few trials in remote areas to deploying these automated vehicles at a large scale. This will likely take years since routes can cover multiple countries; we therefore need to achieve consistency between the traffic codes and regulations of each territory in a region in order to implement a unified fleet.
Secondly, we need to develop better connectivity protocols that deliver the extended range, reliability and low latency required by the automotive market. These protocols must be able to handle a comprehensive list of common and corner case situations such as sudden changes in the road layout. At Ocado, we have developed a low latency system in collaboration with Cambridge Consultants: it works over the 4G standard and enables us to quickly coordinate more than 1,000 robots in a split of a second - you can read more about this project here.
Finally, companies need to be aware of the public perception when it comes to computer-controlled machines. There are potential security implications related to using these vehicles for other purposes than those they were originally designed for, including as weapons (hence my original reference to Duel in the introduction).
Overall, I think it’s important to remember that we are still some years away from fully automated vehicles becoming a familiar sight on our roads. In the meantime, more self-driving trials will probably get underway in Europe so try to keep your composure if the next time you look in your rearview mirror, no one appears to be behind the wheel.
It’s either that, or Steven Spielberg is working on Duel 2.
Are drones the answer to faster home delivery?
I remember a time when the word drone conjured memories of sitting next to a random stranger before a concert only to hear them talk endlessly to their friends about how much they loved the headliner, went to every single show they had every played, and bought every piece of merchandise they ever sold - complete with photographic evidence.
However, browse through the headlines dominating the news cycle of today and you will see the word drone mentioned for entirely different reasons. Indeed, everyone from Intel and Qualcomm to Amazon and Walmart is talking up drones nowadays.
Adding to the hype, a recent US federal ruling has made it possible for commercial drones to be used over populated areas without the need for a pilot’s license.
This sent drone enthusiasts on a PR mission to convince the general public that deliveries via drones are (a) imminent and (b) a very good idea. But beyond a few publicity stunts aimed at getting shoppers excited about the prospect of burritos falling from the sky, few have provided compelling answers to justify why drones should be the absolute future for home deliveries. In fact, if anyone took the time to speak with any serious drone manufacturer or business user, they would hear about a comprehensive laundry list of safety implications that need to be addressed before commercial drones can be used around people.
The last mile
Ocado has a large team of engineers working on route optimization for our delivery vans. In retail-speak, this part of the chain is called the last mile.
Previously used in telecommunications to refer to the final segment of the network that delivers services to end-users, the last mile is used by the retail industry to describe the final part of the supply chain that makes it possible for customers to receive their orders. Experts often describe the last mile as the most expensive, least efficient, and most problematic part of the overall delivery process.
The apparent logic behind drone deliveries is that they will solve many of the headaches associated with e-commerce, including the eternal inefficiency of the last mile process.
However, many choose to stay silent about (or blissfully ignore) two essential metrics associated with home deliveries: route density and drop size. These are incredibly important when it comes to the entire delivery process, regardless of whether you’re sending goods using a van or a drone.
Route density is the number of drop offs for a given delivery route; the drop size is the number of items delivered to each customer along a route. A look at the latest statistics from our analytics department shows that a typical Ocado customer spends £110 per order on average and our logistics department currently achieves 166 deliveries per van per week. Given that most customers place an order once per week, a delivery typically includes tens of products weighing several kilograms altogether.
Most drones struggle to carry anything above a couple of kilograms and have a limited range of 10-15 miles; that’s good enough for a burrito or a USB stick but not suitable for a crate of ambient, chilled and frozen products flown tens of kilometers from a delivery center into your backyard. These limitations affect both route density and the drop size and mean vans still have the edge over drones when it comes to last mile deliveries for the foreseeable future.
That doesn’t mean that the technology to lift goods into the air doesn’t have immediate applications for grocery deliveries; it’s just that drones will be part of the solution, and not the solution. A company might choose to handle small, top-up or ad-hoc type orders using drones for example (imagine something the size of your lunch being flown in via drone) while larger, weekly orders will still be delivered using the more familiar van method.
Ocado is leading the retail industry in efficiency when it comes to the last mile process and other logistics operations. We are constantly evaluating new ways in which we could extend our leadership position, including the use of drones and other types of robotics inside and outside of our warehouses.