Do unmanned electric delivery vehicles offer a solution to the shortage of drivers and the high cost of the last mile in e-commerce? Colruyt Group is testing the potential on Belgian public roads for the first time.
Need for new solutions
On Wednesday morning, Colruyt Group’s grocery delivery service Collect&Go has sent an unmanned delivery vehicle onto the public road for the first time, after tests for several weeks in the parking lot of its distribution centre. For the next two months, the trolley will drive the longest unmanned route ever in Belgium, four kilometres from the distribution centre to the pick-up point at the local Colruyt supermarket in Londerzeel (near Brussels). Quite a challenging route, with a lot of traffic.
The purpose of the test? To ascertain what unmanned vehicles can mean for the delivery service in a rapidly changing e-commerce context. Efficiency and sustainability are key here: the high cost of the last mile, the problem of mobility in cities and the shortage of drivers increase the need for new solutions.
“We became the market leader with click&collect, but we are responding to new needs”, Collect&Go’s Tom De Prater explains. “We already deliver in 27 municipalities in Brussels and Antwerp with our own delivery service. We want to bet on sustainable delivery to the front door. This is the first test of an autonomous last-mile vehicle on public roads in Belgium. We are betting on innovation, testing new opportunities.”
Smart Technics, Colruyt Group’s innovation division that also developed the Okay Direct unmanned store, among other things, is leading the project and also sees interest from other brands and store concepts in the group.
Collecting data and feedback
The compact electric trolley by Estonian company Clevon drives completely autonomously: there is no one on board. However, the vehicle is monitored remotely by an employee who can also intervene if necessary. For now, the speed is limited to 25 kilometres per hour, although the vehicle can reach 50 kilometres per hour.
Meanwhile, the Clevon 1 already has licences to drive on public roads in Estonia and Lithuania, while applications are ongoing in the United States and other countries. The autonomous cars have been driving safely in urban traffic for 2.5 years. “Labour represents 80 % of the last-mile cost”, Clevon CEO Sander Sebastian Agur elaborates. “The shortage of drivers also poses a challenge. This test project is a first step: we first want to collect data and feedback on the potential of this technology in Belgium and for Colruyt Group.”
Legal framework on the way
There is no legal framework in Belgium yet, but the government is working on it, says mobility minister Georges Gilkinet, who gave his permission for this pilot project. “Autonomous vehicles have a role in the mobility of the future, they are complementary to other forms of transport. Internationally, many pilot projects are already underway. However, we must be careful not to make the same mistakes as with other mobility issues. A traffic jam of autonomous vehicles is also a traffic jam…”
It will take some time before Collect&Go will actually deliver groceries to homes with its unmanned trolleys. Colruyt Group wants to test the vehicle thoroughly before making any statements about its deployment for ‘last mile delivery’ in cities. “We are enthusiastic about the potential, at the same time we are very realistic and will proceed step by step”, De Prater added.