By Tom Curtis
President, Lubrizol Additives

How many online purchases have you made recently? Probably more than a few, according to the available statistics.

Recent research shows that e-commerce accounts for an increasing share of global retail sales, and it’s a trend that isn’t slowing anytime soon. The king, of course, is Amazon, which ships billions of items every year, many of which with a free same-day, one-day or two-day delivery promise through the company’s Prime subscription.

Of course, the average consumer doesn’t think much about the logistics required to make these services possible. We just want our packages.

But the reality of the situation—as more and more packages are shipped and delivered around the world—is increasingly complex. Major stakeholders are looking for new ways to optimize the entire delivery logistics chain. The biggest challenge here is last-mile delivery—the package’s final journey from a particular hub to your front door.

There’s a long, informative article from Deloitte Insights that explores the future of freight in great detail that’s worth a read. Here’s how it sums up the delivery journey:

A typical package’s journey can be broken down into three phases: the first mile, middle mile, and last mile. While the first mile of an item’s trip usually takes it from a production facility to a warehouse, and the middle mile then takes it from that warehouse to a distribution hub (usually including the long haul that accounts for most of the actual distance), the last mile is where large shipments of goods atomize into hundreds or thousands of individual deliveries, each with its own route, location, and timing. Until now, major carriers have used big infrastructure investments and economies of scale to dominate this environment. But we expect the ways in which goods move about to change. New technologies and market dynamics look poised to reshape every stage of a product’s journey—especially the last mile.

Traditionally, the last mile has been the responsibility of mail carriers, but in an effort to overcome logistics hurdles, the e-commerce giants are taking matters into their own hands. A recent article in Retail Dive notes some of these efforts: Target acquired a same-day delivery platform Shipt to bolster its service to online customers. Meanwhile, Amazon has experimented with delivery-via-drone, and more recently, was reportedly testing small, autonomous delivery robots.

These kinds of innovations aren’t just for convenience—they’re a growing necessity. Retailers want to optimize their bottom line via new efficiencies in this particularly tricky part of delivery, but there are more critical societal implications to consider.

Think about the time before Amazon, before the game-changing convenience of having any item you could think of shipped directly to your front door in just days (or less). You might drive a few miles to the grocery store, to the pharmacy, or to an actual physical Target location to pick up the things you need. Maybe you do this all in one trip every week.

The e-commerce revolution massively increases those miles, the fuel consumed, and the emissions emitted by the vehicles delivering your items on an individual basis. And you’re not the only one taking advantage—everyone is.

And it’s not just an emissions issue. During peak hours for delivery, there’s been evidence of significant new congestion on urban roadways as last-mile delivery vehicles clog lanes. “Punishing schedules force carriers to send out cargo in less than truckload (LTL) trucks, rather than waiting for cargo consolidation and sending them out as a full truckload,” notes Freight Waves. “The situation snowballs, as cities contend with half-empty last-mile vehicles on their streets.”

Some form of regulatory action is likely inevitable, though the solutions aren’t simple. Restricting the size of vehicles could make sense to limit LTL routes—but that places more vehicles on the road generating more emissions. Mandating last-mile deliveries take place during certain hours would create a different kind of rush hour.

But there are technological solutions here. Electrified vehicles for last-mile delivery would help cut the fuel and emissions concerns, as could other new areas of engine innovation being explored by OEMs around the globe. Automation could help optimize routes, engine operation, and could enable continuous service. But with new technologies come drastic new demands on the engine and drivetrain, and lubricants are often overlooked as part of the solution.

For example, new engine technologies that are designed for greater efficiency demand a lubricant that prevents low speed pre-ignition (LSPI). Electrified drivelines present a completely different set of challenges for OEMs as electric motors are incorporated into new transmission and axle designs. This trend creates new demands on lubricants such as managing conductivity, preventing copper corrosion, ensuring material compatibility and more.

We might be a long way off from fully automated, robotic delivery couriers, but make no mistake: the landscape is changing. Electrification, automation and other new technologies have fundamentally new demands. All parts of the automotive industry must be ready to help tackle the fluid challenges ahead of us.

Our View: At Lubrizol, we’re invested in keeping ahead of these trends because we know that fluids and lubricants play a critical role in optimizing new technology for efficient operation, for the benefit of a society where transportation and mobility are undergoing massive change.

Higher performing lubricants that help optimize efficiency and durability to enable new technological innovation are critical. The lubricants industry bears the responsibility to make it happen.

For more information on automation and mobility, contact your Lubrizol representative.