The daily routine in the delivery sector of the future: Driving, flying, thinking: working with the Vision Van

Jan 5, 2017

Online retail has been growing relentlessly for many years now, driving corresponding growth in business for courier, express and parcel service providers. This trend poses major challenges for the sector. With the Vision Van, a fully interconnected, highly automated van with integrated delivery drones, Mercedes-Benz Vans demonstrates ground-breaking solutions for last-mile urban delivery operations. A peak into the daily routine of a fictitious package deliverer of the future.

Peter Smith used to have to work an hour-and-a-half before leaving the distribution depot in his parcel van. He manhandled boxes from the conveyor belt and stowed them in the racks on board his delivery van. In the future, all this will be carried out for him by a fully automatic system. It scans the packages, sorts them and carries out order picking, assigning them to special racks. A driverless handling vehicle then loads the racks into the intelligent van. Peter Smith can start his tour in a relaxed state of mind. At the start of his shift, he simply enters his Vision Van via the automatic sliding door on the right-hand side and steers the vehicle by joystick from the grounds of the distribution centre. The electric drive system ensures that the Vision Van runs virtually silently along the road and free of local emissions. Integrated delivery drones are positioned on launching and landing platforms on the roof.

One-shot loading requires a fully automated distribution centre. Robots package products after they have been delivered by dealers and forwarding agents, and assign the packages on conveyor belts. Thomas Moser, Vision Van Project Director at Mercedes-Benz Vans, is convinced that such scenarios will all be part of everyday routines in the logistics sector of the future: "Many courier, express and parcel service providers and online retailers are pursuing investment and research efforts with the aim to make logistics processes faster, simpler and more efficient. Automation technology which supports people in their work already plays a key role here today, and will continue to gain in importance."

This investment and the automation trend are being driven by the boom in online retail and the attendant growth in the delivery sector. Experts estimate that global turnover for e-commerce will increase almost two-fold in 2018 in comparison to 2015. Efficiency, speed and flexibility are becoming ever more important in order to cope with this rapid growth and new delivery modes and services such as same-day or time-definite delivery. With the holistic system of the Vision Van Mercedes-Benz Vans shows how intelligent vans with integrated delivery drones can revolutionise parcel deliveries and serve as a platform for a fully digitally connected process chain.

Autonomous delivery equipment: effective delivery in urban environments

Peter Smith heads for the first delivery point on his route through the urban environment which the system has calculated by reference to IT-supported back-end processes. Before the racks are loaded into his van as part of the one-shot loading process, the system records the delivery addresses, weights, dimensions and the desired times or time windows for delivery. The data record also contains information as to whether the customers have a landing station for drone delivery. On the basis of these data, the back-end system calculates an ideal mix of manual and drone deliveries, plans a corresponding route and allocates the consignments fully automatically to the racking systems. The deliverer parks the Vision Van at the kerb. The LED display which is integrated in the tail lamp lights up in red, displaying a "vehicle stopping" warning for the traffic behind. Shortly thereafter, the message "Please overtake" appears. The drivers waiting behind the Vision Van are informed immediately that the van will stay in the parking lot for an extended period of time. As a result, the delivery vehicle is no longer perceived as an annoyance which hinders traffic.

The automatic cargo space management system goes into action before the Vision Van reaches its stopping position, preparing the output of packages. The consignments for manual delivery are located at pre-defined positions in the rack in load carriers. The consignments for delivery by air are contained in optimised drone transport boxes. The cloud-based system directs the fully automatic rack feeder to the rack positions at which the consignments for delivery at the first stop are located.

It picks up the relevant load carrier and transports it by means of a lifting arm to the on-board package dispenser located next to the exit door. Then it supplies the drones which are waiting on the roof.

Earlier, Peter Smith often spent many minutes searching for and resorting packages in the cramped cargo space. In the future he will get up from his seat and go to the package dispenser at the rear of the cab. The display next to the dispenser informs him about the consignment to be delivered. He takes the load carrier with the packages from the dispenser and looks at the floor of the cab. LEDs light up red in the stainless steel floor by means of a special effect, indicating that exiting the vehicle is dangerous at the moment. A cyclist speeds past and the red LEDs go off. The door slides open automatically and Peter Smith climbs out. The smartwatch on his wrist shows him the consignee's name, address and storey. Behind him, the door of his van closes and locks in silence. As Peter Smith makes his way to the delivery address, the vehicle registers movements at its rear. Should pedestrians or cyclists cross the road behind the Vision Van, the transporter warns oncoming traffic with a special effect as to the possible source of danger.

Shortly after Peter leaves the vehicle, the display at the rear of the Vision Van changes: "drone taking off". The rotors of the drones on the roof of the Vision Van start turning, the quadcopters rise vertically into the air and fly autonomously along a pre-calculated route to the programmed delivery address. The system automatically includes no-fly zones in its route planning. At the destination, the drones deposit their deliveries in landing stations located directly at the consignees' homes.

The automatic cargo space management system and the automatic transfer of packages substantially reduce curbside time, that is, downtime at the curb, as the driver no longer has to search for or resort packages in the vehicle. This is a considerable relief, particularly in urban traffic, in which delivery vehicles often have to double-park. Integration of the drones reduces the number of stops, as well as substantially reducing the delivery time per package across the overall process.

Relieving the workload with the Vision Van

Peter Smith delivers the package to the customer and returns to the Vision Van. When he arrives at the vehicle, the side door opens automatically. The LEDs in the floor light up green and signal to the user that there are no further deliveries at this unloading point and he can continue his tour. Two steps through the cab, then he slides into his seat. No gear lever, no steering wheel, no pedals to squeeze past. Instead, a drive-by-wire control system integrates all steering and driving functions electrically. This system is integrated in the left side of the cab, to facilitate access to the driver's seat. Peter Smith pulls the joystick back with his left hand and sets the Vision Van in motion. In a few minutes he will reach the second unloading point. Here the drones will return to the vehicle in accordance with the route and flight planning and pick up new consignments.

The Vision Van takes the strain out of the package deliverer's work. The irksome and time-consuming tasks of searching for and restoring packages in the cargo space no longer need to be performed, for example. Presently, package deliverers spend around 80 percent of their working hours getting packages from the vehicle to the consignees – searching for the consignment in the vehicle, taking it to the consignee's home address, waiting to be let into the apartment building, taking the consignment to the appropriate floor and handing it over. In many cases, the driver has to return to the vehicle with the package and try again later, because the consignee is not at home. The options of time-definite delivery and drone delivery made possible by the Vision Van reduce the number of failed delivery attempts significantly. The automated system also virtually rules out errors in the delivery process. The end customer benefits from outstanding services, as he can choose a fixed time for delivery in the course of online shopping. The end customer can even alter the chosen time or the time window at short notice via a customer app if his plans change.

The Vision Van harbours vast potential for improved productivity by virtue of one-shot loading, intelligent cargo space management, the integrated delivery drones and its unique connectivity concept. The number of deliveries per day could be increased many times over.

"The Vision Van takes efficiency and profitability in delivery operations to a new level", concludes Thomas Moser. "Vans from Mercedes-Benz will evolve into a platform for intelligent, digitally connected logistics concepts. That's what we aimed to show with the Vision Van."