The last mile • 6 February 2012 • The SnowBlog
The last mile
I spent a good chunk of 1999 working for a company that was busy pondering ways to solve the problem of 'the last mile' in internet delivery. At the end of the 90s it was clear that the world was going to order its goods online in ever-increasing numbers. But where were these goods to be delivered to? An empty house with its occupants out at work. We daydreamed about neighbourhood concierges, about petrol stations and post offices used as local collection depots, about lock-boxes in people's gardens. And on days when none of that seemed likely we imagined a disappointing Plan B where couriers narrowed their delivery windows to half-hour time slots and offered evening and weekend options. Not once did any of us working on that problem foresee that in the year 2012 online ordering would be the norm but most deliveries would work in the exact same way as 13 years before.
I have a mobile phone being delivered tomorrow and Vodafone's text message on the matter says, "Your delivery may arrive at any time between 8:00 and 18:00. Please ensure someone is available to sign for it." Good job I'm not a high court judge or a rocket surgeon or something. I mean, staying at home for a day could be bad news if I was supposed to be directing air traffic somewhere. It's a version of 2012 that no sci-fi author of the 90s predicted.
For one or two abstruse meditations on how this problem might be solved continue reading. Strictly optional.
update: In the interests of fairness I should say that Vodafone texted mid-morning to let me know my delivery would arrive between 1:45 and 2:45. I'd have still had to take the whole day off, but at least I could have gone out to get some lunch. The problem of vague courier delivery times stems in large part from the way they're organised: load up the van, head out on the road for half or all of the day, make deliveries in whichever order makes sense. It's not practical to head back to the depot between every delivery and so vans tend to be effectively off the radar for most of the day, with no one quite sure when they'll pop up.
What's needed are local delivery depots with local delivery routes - eminently possible in most places, given how incredibly densely populated most of the UK is. Instead of large depots feeding a fleet of vans that head out for many hours at a time, large depots need to feed numerous smaller depots. And those smaller depots needs to feed local delivery vehicles that return to the depot every hour at least. Those vehicles could be smaller and cheaper, in some instances a moped would suffice (greatly reducing the chances of getting stuck in traffic), their drivers could have much better local knowledge and the driver's stops could be planned to within 30 mins. If Pizza Hut can manage it, so can Parcelforce.
Maintaining this much infrastructure would be expensive, so it needs to be shared. In this modern age of outsourcing, coordinating between different courier companies should be easy, with the right computer systems. A 'backbone' or 'trunk' network could handle shipping between major collection depots and local delivery depots. Then local courier companies could handle local pickups and local deliveries.
Taking an idea from the world of taxis, it would even be possible to use a fleet of licensed, freelance couriers who use mobile computers to say which deliveries they want to be responsible for. Whoever is free can offer to take the next delivery. A large number of freelance courier vans would work more efficiently than each company having their own vans because excess capacity never costs a company money and that extra capacity goes wherever it is needed.
What doesn't work so well is a system with badly-run customer-facing websites and phone numbers that never get answered, and a huge number of wasted delivery trips caused by the fact that very few people can afford to stay at home on a week day for 8, 10 or 12 hours.
Any guesses as to what the world of internet deliveries will look like in another 13 years? Better? The same? (And bonus marks to anyone suggesting "worse, because a lot of it will be done using rowing boats")