Are autonomous vehicles on local roads the future?
ACCORDING to Reuters, Chinese ecommerce giant Alibaba Group Holdings plans to set up a regional distribution hub within KLIA Aeropolis in Sepang to cater to its fast-growing business in Southeast Asia.
Sepang is an attractive location for an e-commerce regional distribution centre due its strong regional network as well as its location next to Port Klang, one of Asia’s largest seaports.
Products from all over the world are brought in by sea to Port Klang, transported by road to this hub, and based on customer order sent by road and air to its final destination.
The backbone of an e-commerce distribution network is good road transport. E-commerce transport needs both long haul transport as well as fine distribution into urban and rural areas.
Although Malaysia has cheap petrol, trucks and vans are labour intensive and a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, the future of e-commerce distribution will move towards autonomous vehicles.
Road tests have started with semi-automated trucks and fully autonomous vehicles. What are some key developments?
Last year, Europe started a truck platooning challenge, where DAF Trucks, Daimler Trucks, Iveco, MAN Trucks and Bus, Scania and Volvo Group, drove semi-automated trucks in platoons, on public roads from several European cities to the Netherlands. In truck platooning, two or three vehicles, using radar and global positioning satellite technology, are connected via WiFi.
The first truck determines the speed and route. The next trucks follow at short distance. Thanks to the WiFi connection between trucks, trucks break at the same time, avoiding any shockwaves in traffic.
Trucks drive close behind one another to utilise the road better and save time, fuel and emissions. The results were promising. Emission were reduced by 20 per cent. The distance between the trucks is optimised to reduce air drag, reducing fuel consumption by 10 per cent.
Six companies, the port of Antwerp and the city of Mechelen in Belgium just started a research project on autonomous logistics vehicles for cities.
This project needs to find answers on questions such as: where will these autonomous electric vehicles drive? Can they be used only in the city or even in suburbs?
Will they also enter traffic-free zones? Are the only used for parcel deliveries or even for larger shipments? How are they deployed and what data is needed to control these vehicles?
China plans to build the world’s largest autonomous driving test zone this year in the south-eastern city of Zhangzhou in Fujian province. The project involves building autonomous driving infrastructure, including traffic signs, in a 56 sq km area in Zhangzhou’s economic and technological development zone.
The zone will become a real-life lab for autonomous vehicles.
Ford presented a few weeks ago during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona the concept of “Autolivery”, electric selfdriving vans used together with drones to pick up and drop off goods and packages in urban areas. This eliminates the need for delivery drivers and workers.
The drones can be used for locations where the van cannot reach. Ford plans to have its fleet on the road shuttling packages to people in 2021.
Autonomous vehicles are thus around the corner. To make Malaysia the preferred e-commerce hub of Asia, it is critical to make modernisation of road transport and innovations in city logistics a top priority.
The writer is founder and CEO of LBB International, which provides logistics diagnostics, supply chain design and solutions and market research in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.