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Greening the last mile of e-commerce

Could hubs, nudges, and EV night deliveries crack this surprisingly tough puzzle?

By Prachi Patel

Online shopping began with the utopian promise of curbing individual car trips to stores, thus reducing fuel use and carbon emissions.

Yet it didn’t quite turn out that way. The ease of clicking on ads and the “Add to Cart” button has brought out our worst consumer instincts. We now order single items and expect same-day delivery. But having a specialty razor, a bag of pet food, or a bottle of vitamins rush-delivered is like driving for miles to a store repeatedly for one thing at a time. Even worse: lumbering, smoke-belching diesel vans now make those trips for us.

Rush delivery has made the last few miles that goods travel from a transportation hub to a buyer’s doorstep an environmental and logistics nightmare. A World Economic Forum report estimates that there will be 36 percent more delivery vehicles in the world’s biggest cities by 2030. That will increase delivery vehicle–related emissions by about a third. And there’s another environmental toll: congestion in those cities will increase by over 21 percent, which amounts to adding 11 minutes of commute time for each passenger every day—as well as more carbon emissions due to all the idling engines.

To add a shade of green to last-mile delivery in the next decade, here are four things cities and companies could change:

1. Vehicle Change

Shifting to electric delivery vehicles is the low-hanging fruit for greening last-mile delivery. This move alone would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent, per the WEF report. Some forward-thinking companies such as Ikea are making the switch on their own. But cities could speed up delivery electrification by establishing low-emission zones. Several cities across Europe plan to do so.

Using sidewalks and airspace is more ambitious. Autonomous drones and smart delivery robots could take parcels from a manned or self-driving van to a customer’s doorstep. The van would park in a neighborhood, opening a hatch to let out multiple robots or drones that use GPS and machine learning to set up and navigate routes within a short radius. Then they’d come back and recharge while the van moved to the next neighborhood. The technology could bring down congestion-related emissions, but it comes with regulatory and logistics issues and might take time to become mainstream. A 2016 McKinsey report predicts that such autonomous vehicles could be delivering
80 percent of parcels in the developed world by 2026.

package delivery drone

2. Nighttime Delivery

Delivery trucks blocking urban streets elicit ire but also trigger congestion and intensify emissions from idling traffic. Even parked by curbs, trucks cause as much as 947,000 hours of vehicle delays in cities. So why run deliveries during the day, when truck drivers take up precious parking space, and waste time and fuel to compete with commuters? Nighttime deliveries would allow larger vehicles to zip around city roads at higher speeds. The WEF analysis shows that delivery at night or before and after business hours could reduce inner-city traffic congestion by 15 percent, dropping carbon dioxide levels by 4 percent. And hey—a clean, whisper-quiet EV would be perfect for nighttime delivery.

And when daytime delivery is necessary, the WEF report says, creating designated parking zones for delivery vehicles and stepping up enforcement against double-parking in the street would help cities reduce congestion by one-third.

Having a specialty razor, a bag of pet food, or a bottle of vitamins rush-delivered is like driving for miles to a store repeatedly for one thing at a time

Hamburg milti-brand parcel locker


3. Collection Hubs

City governments could take a page from Amazon’s playbook and establish central lockers for efficient, theft-proof deliveries. Numerous brands, merchants, and courier services could drop off parcels in these self-service lockboxes for customers to pick up at their convenience. By providing a central location where people drop off and pick up packages using ID, passcodes, or biometrics, such parcel lockboxes would cut the congestion and pollution burden of door-to-door deliveries. The city of Hamburg opened the first such multi-brand parcel shop in 2018 in a shopping center.

And there’s no reason these parcel shops have to be stationary. They could evolve into autonomous, mobile robots that carry several parcels to a neighborhood or specific destination such as a university. Although a few pilots have been launched in recent years or are being planned for such autonomous parcel-delivery vehicles in the future, so far only US authorities have expressed the willingness to permit broad public use of autonomous ground vehicles, per the McKinsey report.

Use of parcel lockers, electric fleets, and nighttime deliveries could collectively reduce local emissions by 35 percent and congestion by 25 percent over the next decade.

4. Behaviorial Nudges

The fault may lie not only in our infrastructure, but in ourselves. Behavioral economists suggest the steering of customers toward climate-friendlier shipping choices by making them aware of the options and rewarding them with kudos. How about a green-colored delivery box that shows your neighbor that you picked slower shipping that combines items in a parcel? Or a discount for picking a cargo-bike delivery? In one test in Mexico, for instance, MIT researchers found that over half of consumers were willing to wait longer for their orders when told at checkout that slower shipping would save trees. 


Prachi Patel, originally from Nagpur, India, is now based in Pittsburgh. She writes about energy, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and computing. She is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum and her work can also be found in Scientific American and Technology Review.

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