Move Over, Trucks: It’s Time For Smaller Delivery Solutions

EVERY DAY, SEVERAL TRUCKS PARK ON MY STREET IN SOUTHWEST DETROIT, FOR A FEW MINUTES EACH. Some stand in the bike lanes (UPS or FedEx), while the USPS trucks usually park in real parking spaces. Amazon favors vans that are bigger than USPS vehicles, but usually smaller than USPS or FedEx trucks. To say nothing of the air pollution or carbon footprint, the noise and disruption alone seems like a bit of an obnoxious price to have to pay for the convenience of instantaneous delivery of, well, pretty much anything in this economy. A couple of recent papers I’ve been reading look at the energy question as well as at the tradeoffs between competing delivery solutions. Much as I am loath to consider that maybe the tech bros were ever right about anything, the promise of drone delivery looks like it’s actually a money-saving, carbon footprint-reducing value proposition.

Looking At An Evolving Landscape

Part of this conversation is about how markets for consumer goods– and delivery thereof- evolve over time. It makes sense to look at a company like Amazon, for obvious reasons. I speculated many years ago that the retail mega-giant would never be able to maintain its position of market supremacy as a store that both stocked and sold everything, and this prediction has proven true as the company develops sophisticated logistical solutions for other people’s inventory (Fulfilled By Amazon, or FBA).

While the company continues to mint money, its retail business is not without problems, to put it mildly. The company continues to spar with regulators, third-party delivery contractors or third party logistics providers (3PL), and, of course, with the big contracted delivery folks of UPS, FedEx, and USPS over, well, a lot of stuff, frankly. Amazon wants the lowest prices to offer to customers, which puts the squeeze on the 3PL crowd. And it’s often hard for someone without intimate knowledge of a huge, trillion-dollar organization– whose business model is predicated on literally losing money on many transactions in order to build market share- to really understand where the lines are drawn.

A brief article with a misleading premise looks at the question of Amazon’s actual profitability. The article says that no, Amazon is actually quite profitable, but the author immediately concedes that we don’t really know, and, yes, AWS is really the cash cow. The author finally conflates cash flow with profitability, the nail in the coffin of this poor article. Other articles I’ve cited here emphasize the central topic of rising costs of logistics and warehousing. As the ‘zon loves figuring out how to lower labor costs, workers be damned, it absolutely makes sense to think about drone delivery.

Drone delivery cannot yet replace package delivery for heavier packages, but it can deliver the majority of small objects to your door, ranging from things like mail to odds and ends of consumer goods. Recent studies suggest that electric drone delivery is the lowest-carbon delivery method compared to battery electric vehicles or ICE-powered vehicles, by a huge margin. File photo by Puhhha.
Electrify The Truck Fleet? Or Just Ditch It Altogether?

Wait, though. Would simply electrifying the truck fleet solve any of these problems? From an environmental standpoint, it would make big strides. But the high cost of labor– and the operating expense for a huge vehicle- still keeps drones ahead of trucks, for many (but again, not all) deliveries. Let me say this for the right-wingers screaming about how I can’t fit a couch on my handlebars and therefore bikes are a communist conspiracy, or whatever: trucks aren’t going away, which makes projects like GM’s BrightDrop important to watch. This is especially true for heavy stuff.

A 2021 academic study conducted by (or for) Ford on this subject shows that battery electric vehicles have the lowest carbon footprint among conventional, “large” vehicle delivery systems. Although drone delivery has been a discussion topic for years, this study suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic was a strong motivator for broader deployment of more advanced delivery systems because of labor shortages and periods of huge demand spikes. But the lowest possible carbon footprint does indeed come from the drone. It’s less than half of even a battery electric vehicle at 70 grams CO2 per package (from an established average size). Compared to 486 grams per package from the Ford study for a gas-powered Big Delivery Truck, that’s making those robocopters look pretty good.

USPS data show that while the share of first-class mail (lightweight stuff, namely letters and lightweight packages) has declined substantially since its peak in 1978, it still makes up a huge volume of mail. Translation? Drone deliverable! (It’s probable, of course, that rain, snow, or the occasional Luddite, would stay these couriers from their appointed rounds). 

According to a recent study, delivery drones represent a great way for companies to save money and drastically reduce carbon footprint. Drone delivery has some limitations, but the technology is constantly evolving. Illustration by Gleb Tagirov.

What about electric cargo bikes?

I’m glad you asked! This issue is being extensively studied– in the United States, even, since bike infrastructure has been pretty well-established in Europe for decades. eBikes can carry far more weight than drones. They can also go faster than most drones, and, while they’re nominally less maneuverable than a robot with four propellers, this seems to make them simply better suited for delivering certain types of products. There very little that a bicycle cannot be configured to deliver. I’d include in that category “anything that cannot be delivered on an 8’x4′ trailer,” although very few products that are ever delivered to your front door are ever even close to this.

Looking at this “big object delivery” question specifically? Many companies delivering, say, a huge toolbox for your garage, or a new couch, aren’t using shippers like FedEx anyway, but rather what are called Less-Than-Truckload, or LTL, shipments on box trucks or even tractor trailers. This means that these vehicles have to be dispatched based on scheduled demand. So, to all of the naysayers who say you can’t deliver [x] on a bike? Apparently you can’t deliver it in a Ford Transit van, either, as long as that van has “Prime” or “USPS” or “FedEx” written on the side. In other words, if the object in question isn’t literally thousands of pounds, it’s probably something that can be delivered with eBikes.

Limitations of the electric bicycle? Obviously, we have plenty of family-sized cargo bike options, like the exorbitant Urban Arrow. But while I’ve seen electric bikes that are hooked up to trailers that can fit 4’x8′ sheet goods, I have yet to so much as hear about one that has been developed with commercial range capabilities. One thing’s for damn sure, though, and that’s that even building a brand new vehicle like this from scratch would be way cheaper than the gas-powered (or certainly battery-powered) alternative in truck form. While research on eBike delivery is ongoing, we have some data points, imperfect though they may be. A study from eBike delivery in Seattle didn’t yield as impressive savings as expected, chiefly because it factored in the hefty carbon footprint of delivering goods to the hub whence the delivery bikes were dispatched.

Decentralized Logistics For Smaller-Footprint Solutions

Realistically, retooling for eBike delivery will mean that we probably won’t have eBikes riding the whole way from Melvindale, Michigan, to the massive Amazon facility on 8 Mile. Whether eBike or drone, lower-power, lower-footprint solutions will require smaller, more local distribution hubs. That might sound like a tough nut to crack. But if Amazon can figure out how add millions of square feet per day in logistics capacity, it seems like they might be able to develop a decentralized system for a new, decarbonized future of logistics and drayage, right?

Another challenge is that there isn’t really a well-developed regulatory framework around drones these days. There is, thankfully, a quite lively academic discussion around the issue these days, looking at everything from insurance and liability questions to noise. Personally, I’m voting for the eBike, because the hum of hundreds of delivery drones is probably enough to drive someone mad. But who knows? Maybe silent drones will be next on the R&D agenda.

Have you ever had a package delivered by drone? What do you think? Write to us!

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

Leave a Reply