Intelligent transport hits the road
For the first time, DHL is combining advanced technology with dynamic route planning in its vehicles. The SmartTruck will increase efficiency in both pick-up and delivery.
In the Berlin depot at DHL Express a driver loads up his delivery vehicle. A perfectly normal occurrence, were it not for the small set of traffic lights next to him. He grabs a parcel and places it into the cargo space.
Suddenly the light turns red. The driver almost loaded on the wrong shipment but the SmartTruck knows what should and shouldn't be on board and that isn't all that this clever vehicle has to offer by a long way.
At first glance the vehicle does not seem any different from conventional DHL transporters. Only the 'SmartTruck: The greener and brighter way' overprint provides a clue that this is no ordinary delivery vehicle. Boris Paul, project leader for SmartTruck in Technology & Innovation Management explains, "SmartTruck uses radio frequency identification (RFID) and a completely new type of route planning software, which navigates express vehicles and other vehicles away from inner city traffic jams." In a pilot project two SmartTrucks are being deployed on Berlin's roads since the end of March.
The intelligent route planning system is based on satellite-supported geo and telematic data, which locates the vehicle and analyzes the traffic situation. In order to receive relevant information on the traffic situation in Berlin center, DHL is working with Berlin-based taxi companies in a pilot project.
If taxis are caught in a traffic jam somewhere in the capital, the information taken from the global positioning system (GPS) is automatically sent through to DHL. This is made possible using a system called floating car data, which was developed by Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt (German aerospace center).
Finding the best route
The data are transmitted directly to the dynamic route planning system, which recalculates the routes, depending on the current order situation and volume of traffic. Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz (German research center for artificial intelligence) has developed the relevant IT architecture to ensure data exchange runs smoothly.
"The SmartTruck driver is automatically allocated a collection order which he can complete in the quickest time possible. If he is not able to keep to a given time window for a customer, his order is quickly transferred to another colleague in the destination area," explains Mr. Paul, the project leader. This saves on both costs and time.
SmartTruck also benefits the environment, since through efficient route planning the vehicles' fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions are reduced. "If the technology proves successful, we will be looking to make a significant contribution to our GoGreen climate protection program," says Keith Ulrich, head of Technology & Innovation Management at Deutsche Post DHL.
The core of the SmartTruck is in the dynamic route planning, which was developed on behalf of DHL by Quintiq, a supply chain software specialist. It is the digital nerve center of the system and processes all the information on the traffic situation, loading and location of the SmartTruck in the DHL operations center and sends relevant updates, for instance a change of route, to the vehicle's on-board computer.
Dynamic route planning also provides the vehicle with all the vital information on the night before the next round: where parcels are to be collected, which addresses are to be covered during delivery, which route is the most efficient and which parcels should be on board.
RFID - Radio frequency identification
RFID is also used for this: electronic tags, known as RFID tags, are attached to the parcels held in the cargo space ready to be transported and these contain the shipment identification (ID). In the vehicle's cargo space antennas are installed which are connected to an RFID scanner. This in turn maintains contact with the on-board computer, which shares the data with the DHL operations center.
When the SmartTruck is stationary, the antennas transmit radio waves and thus alert the electronic tags. Each one radios back an "I'm here" signal and its ID. The system compares the IDs with the transport list and literally gives the green light via the traffic light system when loading if everything is on board, or warns the driver if something is missing or the wrong parcel has been placed into the cargo space. "This enables us to achieve greater precision in pick-up and delivery," says Boris Paul.
During the tours, the system updates itself each time the driver stops and takes off or loads more parcels. "With the SmartTruck project we are using RFID in vehicles currently in operation for the first time, which means that we are entering exciting new territory with DHL," says Norbert Offermann, RFID senior solution architect at Motorola Enterprises. Project partner Motorola has developed the hardware components for the system, as well as the on-board computer. The vehicle itself is also continuously tracked using GPS.