The driverless road to a high-tech logistics industry

For the global logistics industry, it's about what these platoons of driverless vehicles mean for the design, size and location of warehouses.

March 31, 2016

With the UK government giving the green light to trials of ‘truck platooning’, all eyes will be on how these computer controlled vehicles deal with safely steering and braking.

For the global logistics industry, the big question is not just what these platoons of driverless vehicles mean for our roads, it’s also about how they will impact on the design, size and location of warehouses. And these are becoming increasingly high-tech in their own right, according to Jon Sleeman, Director of JLL’s EMEA and UK Logistics & Industrial Research team.

He says that in years to come many HGVs will be autonomous and embedded with sensors, delivering to and from warehouses operated by robots, which are also embedded with sensors to speed up picking and fulfilment work.

“We don’t know what these autonomous vehicles will be like yet – in terms of their dimensions, their maneuverability or their docking requirements,” he says. “But all of these will have an effect on the size of yards, the design of warehouses, and their plot density. This in turn will affect development costs, especially in urban areas where there’s strong competition for land.”

A new logistics landscape

With driverless lorries and fulfilment robots, warehouses would no longer need to be near large labor markets. Instead, they could be sited on cheaper land, which once again has big implications for cost.

“We’ve already seen how robots in warehouses have changed the types of jobs people do. At some point, they may change the number of jobs needed and whether a large local labor market is necessary,” Sleeman adds.

“Any investor or developer in logistics real estate needs to understand not only property, but also the wider implications of sensor technology in logistics. They need to step back from property and look at what’s really driving change. And sensors are a large part of this.”

A rapid pace of change

Although developments remain in a very early stage, technology is advancing quickly. It was only October 2015 when Daimler tested its driverless lorry on a public road in Germany for the first time.

“I’m not saying there aren’t barriers that need to be overcome with driverless vehicles,” says Sleeman. “Initially we’re still likely to see a person in the cab – not driving, but doing other logistics-related work. And it may take time before big changes happen.”

With 73 percent of the UK’s domestic freight transported by road, Sleeman expects the effect of sensor technology on logistics to be widespread in the coming years.

Driverless vehicles are dependent on good vehicle-to-vehicle communication and good vehicle-to-infrastructure communication using embedded sensors and GPS. But driverless HGVs’ use of sensors is just one element – and the growing application of embedded sensors is going to be massively important to the logistics industry as a whole.

“The media is focusing on autonomous HGVs” says Sleeman. “But people need to focus on all the areas in logistics where sensors are being used.”

“We’re seeing interplay all along the supply chain between logistics’ sensor technology and the Internet of Things.” The result is rapidly distilled data from a wide variety of sources, which will have a profound impact on the overall supply chain.

“Everything is coming together at once, meaning there’s significant potential for gain when it comes to tracking and tracing goods, monitoring risks to the supply chain, and maximising utilisation of warehouses and trucks,” Sleeman adds.

Given the pace of technological advancements, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how warehouses will work or where they’ll need to be even a decade from now. But with the lifespan of a warehouse tending to be at least 25 years, investors and developers must think long term when making decisions now, Sleeman says.

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