Swarm Logistics - the machines are taking over
In 2025, commercial vehicles drive autonomously and are loaded and unloaded independently by robots. On the last mile to the customer, flying drones and transport robots swarm from the vehicle, distributing goods and packages in units of different sizes. On long-haul routes, vehicles form so-called platoons; vehicles that drive in a convoy to save fuel in the slipstream. The vehicles are constantly regrouping themselves dynamically between the platoons and exchanging parts of their freight for greater efficiency on the routes. The logistics of the future will largely organize itself with the help of algorithms; vehicles and airplanes will communicate with each other and negotiate freight rates independently as profit centers. Goods are forwarded multi-modular via all modes of transport and via various transport companies and reach the recipient in optimized, energy-efficient ways. Thanks to modular cargo containers and vehicles, as well as automated trans-loading between vehicles by robots, fixed trans-loading depots are no longer required. The Business Operating System (BOS) and thus the new manager in the "Machine Economy" steers the company and the vehicles completely autonomously with the help of artificial intelligence; it continuously optimizes its functions and thus also the transport of goods.
What still sounds like science fiction and a vision of the future, manufacturers of commercial vehicles, freight forwarders, logistics service providers, suppliers, but also software companies and startups are working on it. The future can still only be estimated by isolated solutions, but one direction can already be seen: autonomous delivery traffic is part of an overarching mobility concept for people and goods. The Chinese online retailer Alibaba is already developing autonomous delivery robots, Amazon is working on airships for the transport of goods, Tesla is building autonomous vehicles and DHL is developing concepts for multi-modular transports.
For decades, little news from the logistics industry could be heard. But now the industry is catching up with a sprint. With around 35 million delivery vehicles, Europe has a turnover of more than 1050 billion euros, and 223 million trucks transport freight and goods worldwide. Transport volumes have also increased by almost 60 percent since 2000 as a result of growing online trade and, above all, the increasing internationalization of business. Nevertheless, in Germany alone, although the most efficient logistics market worldwide, empty trucks drive 6.3 billion kilometers per year. That is just under 27 percent of empty rides, and a further 36 percent are only partially utilized; in emerging markets these numbers are over 50%. This is not efficient, nor is it ecological: some three billion tons of goods could actually be taken in these vehicles in Germany and at the same time shippers complain about a shortage of transportation capacities - but so far efficient coordination of freight is missing.
The industry is working feverishly on its organizational and loading structures. The aim is autonomous delivery that coordinates itself automatically and consist of these three ingredients: Autonomous commercial vehicles replace the driver and transport goods. Automated loading solutions support the loader and un-loader and are intended to take over their work completely. Finally, programs and systems digitize the organization and coordinate vehicles, routes and exchanges; they largely do the work of today's dispatchers.
The first parts of this future can already be seen on roads and test tracks: a few years ago Mercedes-Benz sent its Future Truck 2025 on a motorway on a test basis, and in six years' time the model should be able to move completely autonomously. Other companies are also working on drones and other autonomous vehicle systems. The US startup Comma.ai is developing a retrofit solution for autonomous driving that will cost no more than $1,000; Knorr-Bremse already offers semi-automated safety and shunting technology for trucks. The delivery robots of the US/Estonian start-up Starship are also already being tested. They complement delivery vehicles and take over the transport of the last few meters to the recipient. Although an aerial drone cannot replace a vehicle in densely populated urban areas, it offers alternatives in difficult and extensive regions, and initial tests are already underway.
With the introduction of standardized containers in the 1960s, the productivity of a dock worker was increased from just over half a ton per hour to just under 30 tons per hour because the new containers forced the use of machines and cranes. The concept "A.I. TeamLogistics", which Toyota just presented at Cebit, has a similar thrust: robots load and unload a truck autonomously. Last but not least, we all know the first sketches of automated Hub2Hub traffic, for which one autonomous truck follows another on motorways and vehicles can save up to 20 percent fuel in the slipstream. Platooning is what the expert calls this driving style, and the European Truck Platooning Challenge 2016, which was jointly contested by several commercial vehicle manufacturers, showed that it works.
Meanwhile, intensive work is also being done on solutions for the organization of freight and vehicles. One of the tasks of depots is to equalize the coordination problem between vehicles; with the improvement of the algorithms for coordination, trans-loading depots can become smaller and more decentralized and finally disappear at some point. "KoMoDo" is the abbreviation for "Cooperative Use of Micro-Depots" and a pilot project in which DHL, DPD, GLS, Hermes and UPS, among others, are participating. They are laying the foundation of a trans-loading center for all fleets in Berlin. The aim is to use trucks to reach this trans-loading point, to automatically transfer freight to smaller vehicles, including cargo bikes, and to deliver it more efficiently to companies or consumers. Such cross-fleet cooperation is still only feasible with long-term contracts for delivery areas or through the organization of scheduled services.
But new technologies such as Blockchain are changing the forms and possibilities of such cooperation. The decentralized storage of contracts creates trust between unknown partners.
A decentralized coordination of vehicles is thus possible without anyone controlling the network and the terms.
Last but not least, autonomous and cross-fleet delivery transports need automated processes: A vehicle-based Business Operating System (BOS), so to speak the Robo-Manager calculates for the transportation company which freight is profitable for the vehicle, but also when a drone or robot and where goods should be taken over and where a platoon is best formed from several trucks for energy-efficient driving. The BOS optimizes itself in order to considerably reduce the 27 percent empty runs and unprofitable freight of around 30 percent by redistributing it in the network. Technology transfer from the financial sector should help here: For more than 30 years, computer programs have been used in the algorithmic trading of securities, which can process an enormous amount of data in the shortest possible time. With a comparable business logic, vehicles can also trade transport capacities and thus coordinate themselves. Initial internal test series have shown that algorithmically controlled transportation companies can save an average of approx. 15% in costs, with 40% faster delivery at the same time and only by optimized scheduling of the already accepted freight, and not even rejecting unprofitable freight. Computers know what to buy and when to buy, when to make an offer and when not," said Neil Ackerman, a former Amazon executive in a Bloomberg interview.
Fleets with autonomous vehicles will coordinate themselves like swarms and exchange freight.
The vision of Swarm Logistics as a concept for autonomous, self-organizing delivery described at the beginning is no longer futuristic science fiction.