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Improving last-mile delivery: from contactless to drones via fleet management

28 May 2021

In a retail world increasingly dominated by e-commerce, the customer’s first physical touchpoint can make or break the experience. From the timeliness of delivery to the look and feel of the packaging — for retailers keen to get a competitive edge, it is vital to ensure the ‘how, when and where’ of product delivery to the customer works perfectly.

Yet this last mile of delivery can be challenging – especially when faced with soaring demand. It can add expense – particularly with free or highly discounted delivery options becoming more common. And when it goes wrong, with products damaged or misdelivered, it can lead to extra pressure on the customer services teams – and a spike in returns costs.

Ensuring driver safety

While efficient last-mile operations are important (and a core part of a smart supply chain), keeping drivers safe across the pandemic is vital — and contactless delivery has become standard practice. Using proof of delivery information, including picture capture and GPS coordinates, businesses have removed the need for drivers to capture a customer signature, reducing direct contact.

The good news for retailers is that contactless proof of delivery has also helped to minimise disputes about whether a product was delivered — as well as the item’s condition. Customers are now used to receiving immediate ‘delivery confirmed’ emails, including a photograph of the delivered item; and this contactless approach is expected to become the norm.

Managing workloads for efficiency and wellbeing

There are other factors affecting driver safety – from the hours worked to vehicle condition and ensuring the required routine vehicle checks are carried out. This where fleet management solutions can make a real difference. Capturing and analysing real-time data from drivers in a variety of vehicles, locations and driving conditions, fleet management solutions can provide companies with the information they need to ensure drivers are not exceeding safe driving time.

It can also reveal any red flags in driver behaviour – such as excessive braking – that might increase the need for vehicle repairs. Driver behaviour information can also be used to reduce insurance premiums, so being able to identify which drivers could do with a refresher course can help to maximise safety and keep costs down.

Managing the shift to electric vehicles

Fleet management solutions can also help companies make the transition to electric vehicles (EV). Vodafone’s Electric Vehicle Suitability Assessment tool (EVSA) helps companies to work out the best way to transition their fleet, using metrics such as state of charge to work out how to cut vehicle usage costs and measure the environmental impact. 

Connected vehicles will also play a role in helping to hit tight delivery targets, something that can be hugely challenging, especially within congested urban environments. The combination of IoT, Cloud and 5G networks will allow real-time interaction, while Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) connectivity will create an ecosystem – via mobile networks – of cameras, radars and intelligent mapping, which in turn becomes part of the broad set of technologies underpinning the smart city vision.

Connected vehicles can reduce congestion

The information provided by sensors, location trackers and on-board diagnostics can be collected and analysed in the cloud, helping traffic management systems to keep drivers safer and traffic flowing more freely. It can also help to keep track of air quality – providing urban authorities with valuable insight into emissions and speed with which the move to electric vehicles is making a tangible difference.

During the transition to EVs, route optimisation technology can also be used to maximise the efficiency of the last-mile delivery, for example by minimising empty miles (which is when the vehicle is travelling without a load). With connected vehicles, routes can be changed in real-time in response to traffic problems or delivery priorities, to ensure customer delivery targets are met.

5G and automated deliveries

Looking ahead, the arrival of 5G networks is paving the way for the next generation of delivery technology, such as drones and autonomous mobile robots and autonomous delivery vehicles. A recent survey revealed that 15% of companies are actively pursuing the idea of using robots and 11% are exploring the use of drones for last-mile deliveries.

Drones are already in use for medical supplies around the world. In Ireland, the Diabetes Drone project was the world’s first ‘beyond visual line of sight’ delivery of two diabetic drugs, insulin and glucagon, to Inis Mór, the largest of the remote Aran Islands. This area is often cut off from medical supplies due to bad weather, putting patients at risk.

Autonomous vehicles have also been tested for home delivery. In this situation, an autonomous vehicle brings a package to a customer’s house, the customer enters a code and retrieves the package from a cargo hold. About 13% of the survey respondents have indicated plans to adopt this technology in the future.

To be successfully and safely used at scale, these technologies will require the level of control that can only be achieved through superfast network connections with ultra-low latency. This is where 5G networks and Edge Computing are going to be so important in ensuring that the customer’s first touch experience is right the first time, every time.

Want to find out more about how to transform the last mile of the delivery? Find out more about 5G and what it can do for the supply chain.

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