Ford and Hermes test self-driving deliveries

  • June 28, 2021
  • Steve Rogerson

Ford is working with delivery company Hermes as part of a European self-driving vehicle research programme on last kilometre logistics to make city deliveries more efficient and sustainable.

As part of its research into scalable autonomous driving. Ford plans to invest around $7bn in autonomous vehicles over the ten years until 2025, including investment in self-driving technology partner Argo AI.

Doorstep deliveries are more a part of people’s lives than ever before, but the way they receive those parcels could be undergoing a change. The self-driving vehicle research programme is designed to help businesses in Europe understand how autonomous vehicles can benefit their operations.

One of the UK’s consumer delivery companies Hermes is the first business to partner with Ford on the programme. Using a customised Ford commercial vehicle, the research aims to understand how other road users would interact with an apparently driverless delivery van.

The adapted Ford Transit has sensors that mimic the look of an actual self-driving vehicle plus a “human car seat” in control of the vehicle; this enables an experienced, hidden driver to drive while giving the impression to others around that there is no one at the wheel.

“As we plan to bring autonomous vehicles to the roads, it is important that we focus not only on enabling the technology, but on enabling our customers’ businesses,” said Richard Balch, director of autonomous vehicles and mobility for Ford in Europe. “Clearly, there is no better way to identify how they may need to adapt than to experience those processes in real life.”

By harnessing its experience in commercial vehicles with expertise from delivery firms, the car maker intends to identify opportunities and models for autonomous vehicle operations, in particular understanding how existing processes and human interactions can work alongside automated vehicles.

A commercial vehicle driver’s responsibilities sometimes extend beyond simply driving from one destination to another. In a delivery or logistics operation, for example, the driver may also be tasked with sorting and loading goods, manually handing packages over to recipients, or reloading them onto the van if delivery is not possible.

However, in this research, the driver will play an entirely passive role, simply driving the vehicle. Pedestrian couriers who support the delivery van are equipped with a smartphone app that lets them hail the vehicle and remotely unlock the load door after it is safely parked at the roadside. Once inside, voice prompts and digital screens direct the courier to the locker containing the parcels to be delivered.

Understanding and designing how humans will interact with the vehicle will ensure that business processes are able to continue safely without a driver present.

The two-week research project with Hermes builds on the success of Ford’s last-kilometre delivery trials in London, in which a team of pedestrian couriers collects parcels from a delivery van and fulfils the last leg of the delivery by foot resulting in fast, sustainable and efficient deliveries in cities.

The research vehicles will enable Hermes and other businesses to begin designing how their teams could work alongside driverless vehicles. For Hermes, this research has included developing an app that enables the pedestrian couriers to access the van to collect parcels; once again, this is a role that the human driver would normally fulfil.

“We’re excited to collaborate with Ford on this proof-of-concept trial, which is all about understanding the potential for autonomous vehicles and if they have a role in delivery in the longer-term future,” said Lynsey Aston, head of product, innovation and onboarding at Hermes. “We’re constantly innovating to incubate and then explore concepts like this, and we look forward to the initial findings, which will no doubt be useful on an industry-wide level.”

Ford researchers are already investigating how self-driving vehicles will integrate seamlessly into daily lives, including developing a light-based visual language to convey to other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists what autonomous vehicles intend to do next.

Ford has been testing self-driving technology in major cities across the USA and plans to invest around $7bn in autonomous vehicles during the ten years to 2025 – $5bn of that from 2021 forward – as part of its Ford Mobility initiatives.

In collaboration with Ford’s self-driving technology partner, Argo AI, autonomous test vehicles operate daily in six US cities. Last year, Argo AI’s self-driving system enabled address-to-address autonomous deliveries of fresh produce and school supplies through a charitable goods pilot in Miami, Florida.