For many decades delivery vehicles have enhanced their effectiveness through on-board mechanical handling devices like tail lifts, lorry loading cranes, piggy back forklifts, pallet trucks and specially adapted roller floors to handle one-shot vehicle loading. Some have been adapted for dedicated goods like cheeses so that when the curtain sides have been rolled up the whole vehicle is tilted sideways to discharge all the cheeses onto a conveyor.

Today, however, vehicle add-ons concentrate on real time, higher tech devices like satellite navigation which provides updates on live traffic. Trucks are also tracked and monitored on a real time basis and while costly about 10 years ago their prices have fallen to such a level that they can deliver a return on investment in months rather than years. Even tasks like label printing have moved into the cab because they can avoid depot labelling and hasten the process of moving pallets from customers to hubs like those operated by pallet exchange networks.

The two big areas, however, that will impact delivery costs over the next few years are vehicle automation, or autonomous transport, and the switch to allelectric vehicles. There will be rising interaction between vehicles and drivers as a potential way to unlock big supply chain efficiencies. Self-driving trucks, however, do not preclude drivers. They will still be on board in case of emergencies but they can use their travelling time to make ‘phone calls to suppliers or update delivery information. There is also a significant safety benefit. HGV driver accidents, whether through human errors or using mobile ‘phones at the wheel, are still high, but driverless technology could sharply cut them as well as limit fuel costs.

Current driverless tests are trialling lorries in a convoy, known as platooning, where the lead truck is manually driven while two trucks behind automatically adjust to the lead truck’s speed and manoeuvres, making them more efficient and ‘greener.’ But it is important that all three vehicles are fully loaded, that freight-related documents are not sent by fax and all the corresponding administration not carried out manually. In short, anyone wishing to achieve their expectations from autonomous trucks must also ensure that the corresponding, order-related administrative processes are also autonomous.

Electric delivery vehicles have been performing well for many decades but hitherto have been confined to small vans delivering within a small area owing to their short range of 50 miles or so. All this is about to change as dramatic advances in battery technology, electric motors, and control software now make this sole source of motive power practical for HGVs with a 35-ton cargo and a 300-mile range. A good example is a small start-up company, Thor Trucks, who hope to grab a share of the semi-trailer market, concentrating on short-haul trucks, delivery vans and work vehicles. Launch date is 2019 and while the initial price tag is $150,000, more than dirtier diesel vehicles, buyers will benefit over the long-term through lower fuel and maintenance costs, and society through cleaner air.