Ford conducts autonomous parcel delivery trial at UK port

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Ford and DP World London Gateway, a port facility on the UK’s River Thames, have conducted a trial with a simulated autonomous vehicle to demonstrate how useful such future technology could be to those managing – and employed on – large worksites.

The initiative is part of Ford’s Self-Driving Research Program, designed to help businesses understand how autonomous vehicles could benefit their operations. First launched in June to explore the potential impact on courier services and doorstep deliveries, the DP World trial tested how recipients managed when accessing self-driving delivery vehicles themselves.

The underlying intention behind the program is to identify new opportunities and models for autonomous vehicle operations – in particular, understanding how existing processes and human interactions can work alongside automated vehicles.

“It was incredible to see how enthusiastically the team at DP World embraced working with the support of a self-driving vehicle. We are continuing to work very closely with our customers to learn how these vehicles can benefit their businesses, and it is exciting to see first-hand the impact this can have across a diverse range of locations. What worked so well at DP World premises could equally be of benefit at universities, airports and manufacturing facilities,” said Richard Balch, director of autonomous vehicles and mobility at Ford of Europe.

DP World London Gateway – one of the UK’s fastest-growing ports – is 40km east of central London and already embraces automated technology as an intrinsic part of its operations as a deep-sea container port.

For the trial, Ford used a specially adapted Transit fitted out to mimic the look of an actual self-driving vehicle, with a driver concealed within a ‘human car seat’. Employees at the company’s reception building loaded packages into secure lockers in the rear of the Transit. Then, at set delivery times, the Transit traveled to the main reception 3.5km away, where colleagues retrieved the packages. Usually, staff retrieve packages from the reception building themselves. Although these trips are time consuming, they do not warrant a full-time driver.

Every step of the process was monitored by researchers who also conducted interviews with those who took part, before, during and after the trial. They found that employees quickly became comfortable with using the specially equipped van. Some proactively trained colleagues to access their packages, while others were resourceful in overcoming difficulties intentionally introduced by the researchers, such as the wrong parcels being stowed in the wrong lockers.

“Having what appeared to be a self-driving vehicle on-site created a real buzz. Everyone wanted to use it. Popping in the car to pick up a package from elsewhere on-site might not seem like it takes that long, but across multiple journeys over weeks, months and years, this can add up to a lot of time and money,” said Ernst Schulze, UK chief executive of DP World.

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Lawrence has been covering engineering subjects – with a focus on motorsport technology – since 2007 and has edited and contributed to a variety of international titles. Currently, he is responsible for content across UKI Media & Events' portfolio of websites while also writing for the company's print titles.

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