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Carbon Footprint Same for Human or Automated Delivery, New Study Finds

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A new study has found that the carbon footprint is the same whenever a human or robot delivers a package. The new findings provide fresh insight into automated delivery, which is steadily rising in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused an increase in online shopping. 

Researchers at the University of Michigan first looked at the environmental impacts of advanced residential package delivery scenarios that rely on electric and gas-powered autonomous vehicles and two-legged robots, with the goods being ferried from delivery hubs to neighborhoods, before making it to the front doors. Those impacts were then compared to the traditional approach of hand-delivered packages by human drivers.

The findings indicated that robots and automation contribute less than 20% of a package’s footprint, but most of the greenhouse gas emissions come from the vehicle. The package’s footprint is strongly related to the vehicle powertrain and fuel economy, and switching to electric vehicles while reducing the carbon intensity of the electricity they use could have the biggest impact on reducing the footprint in package delivery. 

The researchers’ study revolved around a life cycle analysis for 12 suburban delivery scenarios, and it also takes into account greenhouse gases from manufacturing the vehicles and robots and their disposal. 

Gregory Keoleian is a Peter M. Wege Endowed Professor of Sustainable Systems at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability, as well as a professor of civil and environmental engineering. 

“We found that the energy and carbon footprints of this automated parcel delivery in suburban areas was similar to that of conventional human driven vehicles. The advantages of better fuel economy through vehicle automation were offset by greater electricity loads from automated vehicle power requirements,” said Keoleian.

“For all delivery systems studied, the vehicle-use phase is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, highlighting the need for low-carbon fuels for sustainable parcel delivery. It is critically important to decarbonize grids while deploying electrified vehicles,” he continued. 

COVID-19’s Impact on Delivery

There are two driving factors behind the current increase in contactless delivery: E-commerce and COVID-19. Because of these, autonomous vehicles and robots are being utilized more in the process. Top companies like UPS and Waymo are currently testing autonomous delivery, whilce Ford Motor Co. and Agilitic Robotics are testing a two-legged walking robot that can deliver packages from the vehicle to the front door. 

According to Allied Market Research, the automated last-mile delivery market has the potential to grow to $11.9 billion by 2030. Last-mile delivery means the final leg of the delivery of a product from a local distribution center to the customer. This is also the most carbon-intensive point in the supply chain. 

Recent studies have suggested that automated last-mile solutions could reduce delivery costs between 10% and 40% in cities, but there are still many questions surrounding their environmental impacts.

The Team’s Study

The team looked at three delivery scenarios and four vehicle platforms and their emissions. 

The three delivery scenarios included conventional, where a human drives the vehicle the “last mile” around the neighborhood before delivering the package; partially automated, where a human drives the last mile and a robot completes the “final 50-feet,” or to the doorstep; and fully automated, where an automatic vehicle drives the last mile and the robot delivers the package to the doorstep. 

The researchers analyzed internal combustion engine and battery electric powertrains for each scenario. They used two sizes of delivery vehicles. One was a 120-cubic-foot van, while the other was a 350-cubic-foot model.

The smallest carbon footprint, 167 grams of CO2 per package, came from conventional delivery with the smaller, electric van. The largest footprint came from the partially automated scenario with the larger, gas-powered van and two-legged robot. 

“Results suggest that automated delivery systems could have slightly greater life cycle greenhouse gas emissions than conventional delivery systems for smaller-sized vans, but there is potential opportunity to reduce emissions for larger-sized vans,” Keoleian said. “Compared to the conventional scenario, full automation results in similar greenhouse gas emissions for the large gasoline powered cargo van, but 10% higher for the smaller battery electric van.”

According to Keoleian, there can be no single automated delivery system for all scenarios, and other factors must now be studied, including life cycle costs, safety, visual impact, and social sustainability. 

 

Alex McFarland is a historian and journalist covering the newest developments in artificial intelligence.