Smart Mailboxes And Drone Delivery

One of the perks of contributing to Forbes.com is getting to talk to under-the-radar startups. This week, I spoke with and wrote about Valqari, a Chicago-based startup working on smart mailboxes for drone delivery.

We should all have smart mailboxes!

“Our next generation will come out in July, we’ll also be launching individual boxes, and adding solar power, wireless drone recharging, and more robust temperature control to our feature set,” Walsh previews. “It’s going to be a busy year for us.”

Read the whole thing!

Self-Driving Ships

The Verge reports on a partnership between Intel and Rolls-Royce to build “self-driving” ships. The article blends discussion of three different scenarios:

  1. autonomous long-haul shipping
  2. remote-control operation
  3. pilot assistance for docking and similar scenarios

I have almost no knowledge of shipping or boats or the ocean or even water. I do know how to swim.

Nonetheless, I speculate that #3 seems the most useful.

The gains achieved by removing a human crew from a cargo ship seem minimal. In the context of a massive shipping vessel stuffed with rectangular containers, the cost of the human crew just doesn’t seem that significant.

But in the context of the close quarters of a harbor or port, I can imagine that there might be substantial performance gains from automation or pilot assistance.

Again, knowing not much about the actual constraints of maritime shipping, I could imagine harbors as bottlenecks, where ships get queued up in lines, waiting for relatively scarce tugboats and harbor pilots. Furthermore, ships do not turn on a dime, and so presumably need to maintain substantial buffer distances.

Autonomous shipping in close quarters might improve both the latency of docking (by allowing ships to skip the line) and the throughput (by allowing ships to shrink buffer distances).

The Right Car, Right Now

Stability vs. Flexibility

Buying and renting anything — a home, a car, a movie — involves a tradeoff between stability and flexibility. Buying provides the stability of permanent ownership and availability, whereas renting provides the flexibility of adjustment to fit changing needs and wants.

The automotive market is moving from an ownership model to a rental model, as ride-sharing services push the stability-flexibility trade in favor of renting, rather than owning. And what we’ve seen with ride-sharing is just the tip of the iceberg. Self-driving cars will push this tradeoff an order of magnitude further.

Mass Customization

As consumers come to value flexibility in transportation, we can take lessons from the manufacturing industry on the practice of mass customization.

Today, car buyers have to purchase a one-size-fits-all vehicle. If I need to drive in snow twenty days a year, I might get a four-wheel drive vehicle, even though I would be better off with a compact car the other 345 days. Similar considerations govern the purchase of a car capable of occasional carpooling, or downtown parking, or a client visit.

In the self-driving car future, we’ll be able to rent the car we want, and the companies that win will get good at doing this really fast.

Need a minivan this morning? It’ll be there in 30 seconds.

Want a convertible this evening? It’ll be there in 45 seconds.

What Do People Want?

In this world, getting the right car to somebody’s door in 60 seconds or less might be the easy part. Mass customization has been studied and optimized and is mostly a solved problem.

The harder challenge is to figure out what people want.

We have some basic starting points: sedans, vans, SUVs, pickups, sports cars.

But these are all built for human drivers in a one-size-fits-all world.

In a mass customization world, we no longer have to make tradeoffs between scenario. We can tune each vehicle option to a specific use case.

It could even be that we’ll hail one car service if we want a maneuverable short-haul vehicle, and a different service if we want a fast, long-haul vehicle.

What kinds of vehicles would you like to see in a self-driving world?

How do you envision the future of vehicle mass customization? Share your thoughts in the comments. Thanks!

Logistics Trends

DHL has released the latest version of their Logistics Trend Report. The report breaks out two types of autonomous vehicles — aerial and ground.

Ground Logistics

The section on ground autonomous logistics is interesting and covers a lot of what we already know. DHL is using autonomous vehicles within warehouses. They will gradually move the vehicles into outdoor settings and then into uncontrolled environments (i.e. public streets) over time. Autonomous highway trucking will be important. The last mile problem will be the final issue to be resolved.

I was interested to see that DHL lists autonomous vehicles as having “high” potential impact on logistics, but they set the time frame as “> 5 years”.

Aerial Logistics

The more interesting section, for me, was their overview of “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles”. Note that this term subtly different from “autonomous” although the details don’t explore that distinction.

Many of the UAV points might seem obvious in retrospect, but I hadn’t thought of them before.

UAVs will basically become important for logistics in two scenarios:

  1. Where the value of a new service is high enough to justify the cost.
  2. Where the cost of an existing service is so high that it’s more economical to use UAVs than to continue the service.

An example of the first situation is aerial surveillance. The report states:

UAVs can monitor sites and assets to prevent theft and report suspected damage or maintenance requirements. They can also be used to coordinate major logistics operations on the ground.

An example of the second scenario is:

Rural delivery using UAVs is attractive for remote regions
that have limited logistics infrastructure or are hazardous
to access (e.g., islands during rough weather conditions,
villages located in mountain ranges). Logistics providers
can set up emergency delivery services (e.g., medicines)
for these communities.

It’s a brave new world ahead.