UPS Talks Drone Delivery, Self-Driving Trucks and Alternative Fuels

July 11, 2016 by Jaclyn Trop, @jaclyntrop

If anyone has a beat on the future of trucking, it’s Mike Britt, director of maintenance and engineering for international operations at UPS, the world’s largest package delivery service.

Mike Britt UPS Headshot

Mike Britt

Britt oversees the company’s international truck fleet spread across more than 220 countries and territories and helps determine what and how UPS drives. Under Britt’s watch as the shipping giant’s alternative fuel technology czar, Britt has UPS treading the cutting edge of green and autonomous technology, adding 7,000 alternative fuel and advanced technology trucks to its global fleet; experimenting with autonomous trucking; and supporting Zipline, a California-based robotics company that’s using drones to deliver vaccines, blood and medical supplies to Rwanda.

Trucks.com spoke with Britt, a 29-year UPS veteran, at the company’s Atlanta headquarters.

Q: How viable do you think fully autonomous trucks will be in the near future?

A: Every one of our Class 8s comes with full collision avoidance. That’s the first step to autonomy. The vehicle has to know where it’s at, what it’s doing, and it has to be able to respond. We started years ago with roll or stability control. A big problem is when trucks come off of curves, they go a little bit too fast, and if they’re going too fast, they roll over. This technology reads the speed and knows the weight so it’ll start to apply brakes in different spots. Full autonomy is something that we’re looking at, but that’s way down the road. The federal regulators need to get involved before we can start to map out any type of deployment. But from a technical standpoint, we’re way ahead. Full deployment really would start with the regulatory process. That has to go through Congress, so that would be at least an administration or two.

Q: How is UPS working with federal agencies like NHTSA to help shape the standards for fully autonomous vehicles?

A: We’re members of the technical advisory group of the American Trucking Associations. ATA has an autonomous committee, and UPS is indeed trying to shape that, trying to make it go in the right direction. We’re very concerned. Safety, obviously, is No. 1, but there are a lot of other factors involved in that as well. Driver skill set, drivers’ training requirements, for example.

Q: What is your view on the feasibility of using drones to deliver packages?

A: With the line-of-sight regulation right now, it’s very unfeasible. If the drone’s got to be within the operator’s line of sight, our driver will have to get on the roof and control the drone. From a technical standpoint, we can launch a drone off a truck, and we can deliver packages. But from a feasibility standpoint, with the current regulatory activity, that’s a difficult fit.

Q: How do you decide where to deploy the 7,000 alternative fuel vehicles that UPS has now?

A: A lot of it has to do with the geography. Frankly, California is the most aggressive state with grants, so we try to exercise all the grants that we can. It’s where we do most of our initial work and a lot of our deployments. There’s no limitation on alternative fuel deployments, but there is limitation on technologies. For instance, battery electric vehicles probably won’t be operating in Minnesota anytime soon because of the weather. It’s just way too cold up there every six months. Of course, there are other technologies that just don’t fit in certain locations. When we talk about Bangkok, natural gas is very abundant over there, so we’ve been running natural gas for many, many years.

Q: How is UPS incorporating alternative powertrains into its fleet?

A: We’ve been using it for many years in many different propulsion technologies –  hydraulic, electric – and we’ve tried it in many different size (trucks) – Class 8s, Class 6s, and Class 4s. Some hybridized technologies fit better than others for certain applications. Hybridized technologies often call for driver interface, but we have 80,000 drivers going out every day. If we only have 900 hybrids, we’re not going to train all 80,000 of them in how to drive that hybrid. The hybrid isn’t so friendly if you’re on vacation and Scotty’s driving it. If Scotty’s not trained and you’ve been getting 35 percent fuel economy improvement, he might get a 5 percent penalty because he’s not using it correctly.

Q: What are some of the company’s main considerations in rolling out hybridization? 

A: Route characteristics are very important with hybrids. A hybrid electric vehicle in our Palm Springs building, where our vehicles are doing 150 miles a day, will get no benefit whatsoever. Our strategy is a global strategy. We do stuff in Thailand, Japan, Europe, here, Canada, Mexico and Latin America, and it is very, very specific to those routes that can handle that hybrid technology. With the hydraulic technology, you’ll hear very soon that we’re going to embark on a pretty large project in Chicago.


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