2. June 2020 | Update

The VanAssist publicly funded project builds the autonomous delivery vehicle of the future

An ever-increasing number of orders, a growing shortage of skilled workers and steadily increasing traffic density mean that the so-called “last mile” of parcel transport – when the parcel is actually delivered to the consignee – is becoming more and more challenging. The publicly funded VanAssist project has therefore set itself the goal of developing a fully autonomous electric delivery vehicle which will be emissions-free locally. In addition to international parcel and express service DPD, the scientific project partners behind VanAssist are the NFF Lower Saxony Research Centre for Vehicle Technology at the Technical University of Braunschweig, the Technical University of Clausthal, Offenburg University of Applied Sciences and the University of Mannheim, together with BridgingIT GmbH, IAV GmbH, Ibeo Automotive Systems GmbH and ZENTEC GmbH. The aim of the autonomous parcel delivery vehicle is to optimise the delivery process and effectively relieve the workload of parcel delivery personnel. With the installation of the sensor and control technology in the basic structure of the autonomous electric vehicle the project, which is funded by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI), is now entering its practical phase.

As an interactive, intelligent system for autonomous, remotely monitored delivery vehicles in parcel logistics, the VanAssist project includes not only the autonomously travelling Motionboard but also a complete software solution for calculating optimal delivery routes and flexible control of the vehicle. As the outcome of the project a so-called “demonstrator” will be created, which will realistically depict how later series-produced vehicles will function and can serve as the basis for series development.

In practice, deliveries will in future be made in the so-called “rendezvous” mode. In this mode the vehicle will cover the route from the depot to the delivery area autonomously, with the deliveryman only joining the vehicle at a defined meeting point. At a rendezvous point previously determined using the route optimisation function, the deliveryman then picks up the parcels that can be delivered on foot in the immediate vicinity. For example, while the deliveryman delivers several parcels in an area that is not accessible or only accessible by taking a detour, the vehicle moves autonomously to the next stop and waits for the deliveryman there. In the meantime an indoor navigation system developed by BridgingIT GmbH can guide the deliveryman on the optimal route through an office building to the next rendezvous point with the vehicle.

Because the deliveryman and the vehicle are always in contact via a secure communication unit, if necessary the vehicle can at any time be flexibly directed to a different stop than the one originally specified. In addition, the vehicle is continuously connected to a control centre so that problems can be reacted to without the deliveryman having to intervene. This will reduce unnecessary journeys for the delivery personnel, thus enabling more parcels to be delivered reliably within a shorter period of time and effectively lightening their workload.

After the development phase VanAssist is now entering the implementation stage: the demonstrator will be assembled on the campus of the Braunschweig University of Technology, where the test track for demonstrating the functions of the fully autonomous delivery vehicle is also located. The vehicle is based on the Motionboard platform supplied by Hanseatische Fahrzeug Manufaktur GmbH and is being equipped by Ibeo with its 4D LiDAR solid state technology for 360° all-round vision, together with a safety system for monitoring the autonomous travel. The vehicle should be fully operational by the end of the year, with the final presentation scheduled for the summer of 2021.

“After an intensive planning phase we are delighted that we are now entering into the concrete implementation stage of the project together with our scientific and business partners”, says Gerd Seber, Group Manager City Logistics & Sustainability with DPD Germany. “We regard autonomous vehicle technology above all as support for our human delivery staff. With a fully autonomous delivery vehicle the delivery process can be made even more efficient in future, enabling the human labour force to concentrate even more on the actual parcel delivery”.

“The VanAssist project gives us the opportunity to develop a completely new modular, electrified vehicle that can be operated autonomously. The parcel delivery application gives us the chance to develop existing automated driving functionalities further, and to test them in a new traffic environment,” explains Prof. Roman Henze, head of the “Intelligent vehicle and networked driving” research field at the Lower Saxony Research Centre for Automotive Engineering (NFF), adding: “The further development of human-machine interface (HMI) concepts through the interaction between automated vehicles and the user, i.e. the deliveryman, is also an exciting research topic”.

“This project is particularly exciting for us: we can develop our research results in the field of autonomous vehicle safety and test them in a concrete environment. With our on-board monitoring and the connection to a central control centre, we can demonstrably and substantially increase the safety of such systems. In this way the introduction of driverless vehicles can be implemented much faster,” says Prof. Andreas Rausch, Director of the Institute for Software & Systems Engineering (ISSE) at Clausthal University of Technology and member of the board of the Lower Saxony Research Centre for Automotive Engineering (NFF).

The project is funded by the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure with a total budget of 4.3 million euros. Within the framework of the “Automated and networked driving” funding programme the project will receive a total of 2.7 million euros in funding. DPD Deutschland GmbH heads the consortium and is supported by ZENTEC GmbH in the administration of the project.

The CEP sector responds to challenges

Online shopping and the associated courier, express and parcel shipments (CEP) are enjoying unchecked growth in popularity. This is particularly evident in B2C shipments: Whereas in 2017 there were 74 billion parcels shipped worldwide, by 2018 this figure had risen to 87 billion – an increase of 17 percent. By 2025 experts even expect parcel volumes of up to 200 billion parcels a year. This is in stark contrast to the major challenges facing the CEP industry: in addition to a growing shortage of skilled workers, this is due in particular to the increasing traffic density in our constantly growing major cities. As a result the “last mile”, i.e. delivery to the consignee, is continuously becoming more complex. Innovative delivery solutions like VanAssist show how the parcel industry can meet these challenges.