Rob Carter, FedEx’s chief information officer, says the shipping giant is considering small vehicles that could drive around neighborhoods and make deliveries without human drivers.
Carter is responsible for setting the technology agenda across FedEx’s various operating companies, including its planes-and-trucks Express shipping service and office-and-home Ground delivery service, which operate in 220 countries.
The investments FedEx makes in AI and robotics technologies could shape the multi-trillion-dollar logistics market, affecting everything from the way people send and receive parcels to the global movement of large fleets of vehicles.
Fedex is working with the startup Peloton Technology, whose semi-autonomous technology electronically links trucks into small caravan groups called platoons. The system, which uses wireless vehicle-to-vehicle communication to enable the driver of a lead truck to control the gas and brakes of a truck following closely behind him, is designed to reduce wind resistance and save fuel. The technology is considered a significant step toward fully autonomous trucks, and Peloton has said it will release it in late 2017.
Carter says FedEx is also “very much interested in” completely autonomous trucking and has partnered with several automakers that specialize in that technology, including Daimler and its Freightliner truck division and Volvo. Daimler has piloted semi-autonomous trucks on highways in Nevada and Germany while Volvo recently demonstrated a fully autonomous construction truck in an underground Swedish mine. Carter says he expects to see “significant implementations” of automated vehicles in the shipping industry within 10 years, but declined to specify when FedEx might adopt semi- or fully autonomous trucks.
FedEx is considering automating package delivery to some extent, but not via conventional drones, or at least not anytime soon. Carter describes himself as “an avid drone hobbyist,” but says delivery-oriented models have “pretty limited capacity” since most can’t lift objects heavier than five pounds or fly farther than 50 miles. He also cites as barriers the challenge of winning approval to operate drones in densely populated areas and ensuring that the devices don’t injure children or pets that approach them.
Carter thinks fixed-wing drones that travel set distances, from specific departure and receiving points, could be feasible for commercial deliveries, but overall he favors rolling robots to flying ones. He notes that rolling a vehicle to a destination is generally far more energy-efficient than levitating one. And since people are already accustomed to postal workers coming to their homes and businesses and placing mail in pre-defined receptacles, future FedEx courier robots could drop off parcels in a similar way.
Investing in future technologies, no matter how promising, isn’t likely to fend off critiques that FedEx is lagging upstarts like Amazon and Uber, which separately launched drone-powered deliveries and self-driving tractor trailers in recent months.