Field Test: DHL drivers test AI-powered voice assistant

DHL Parcel UK, Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles and German Autolabs teamed up to build and test a voice assistant for delivery drivers. The result: drivers spend less time looking at their scanner while at the wheel, are more effective in delivery, and are less stressed at work. New drivers and temporary staff are onboarded faster and experience major benefits from a proactive assistance system. Here’s how we did it.

The challenge: CEP volumes exploding amid driver shortages

2020 has been an unusual year for all of us, and especially the logistics industry. While the boom in online retail has been ensuring steady growth for a number of years now, the unwelcome onset of COVID-19 has increased the volume of goods out for delivery — especially in last mile delivery to the front door.

As reported in our recent article, the Last Mile parcel boom, this poses particular challenges for companies in the courier, express and parcel services (CEP) sector. Volumes are exploding and are under strong price pressure, experienced drivers are becoming scarce, while consumer expectations of fast, transparent and reliable delivery are becoming ever higher. A vicious circle has been created, and it is rapidly expanding.

The idea: Voice assistance for parcel drivers

Increasingly sophisticated route optimisation, more efficient vehicles and advancing digitalisation have made the existing infrastructure more powerful than ever. However the system is still susceptible to a key bottleneck: the driver. Drivers ultimately have to control the vehicle, process a lot of information, and of course carry parcels to the door.

The Last Mile Assistant in action

Enter the Last Mile Assistant: an intelligent voice assistant for professional parcel drivers. The assistant simplifies complex workflows and converts them into straightforward information that is proactively read out at the optimum moment. This keeps eyes on the road, hands on the wheel and makes life easier for a driver under pressure.

The Last Mile Assistant running on an Android tablet during field testing in Leicestershire.

The logistics partner: DHL Parcel UK

As a leading logistics provider, DHL Parcel UK are known to be progressive and technically well-positioned, with 50 hubs and over 2000 vehicles in the global DHL family. DHL have an extensive roadmap for advanced tech deployments in place across their fleet, so German Autolabs’ proposal — to support Last Mile drivers with a proactive assistance system — was warmly welcomed.

A major DHL KPI to tackle is driver satisfaction. A good Last Mile driver is an extremely valuable commodity for a parcel fulfilment specialist. Churn rate in the industry is high, and stress levels are a contributing factor to new drivers not staying in the job.

With a clearer understanding of the pressures on the Last Mile sector, and with a strong sense that we could build something to help tackle their challenges, we set out to select a vehicle partner. We ended up with the best in the business.

The vehicle partner: Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles

Voice assistance is a disruptive, forward-thinking and in many ways, revolutionary technology. We needed a partner who could not only provide vehicles to the highest standards of efficiency and reliability, but one who could help us to implement our proposed IVI (in-vehicle infotainment) solution.

Fortunately, one of the world’s leading commercial vehicle innovations teams is based here in Berlin.

With VW on board, we could rapidly prototype and iterate our proposed solution in a real VW Crafter vehicle.

The Last Mile Assistant graphical user interface (GUI)

The product: Last Mile Assistant

After many interviews with drivers and technology stakeholders across the business process, it was clear that a Last Mile Assistant could effectively support drivers by cleverly combining information from various sources with a clear, simple user interface and focused announcements.

“Stop 12: 55 St Margaret’s Way. Secure location: Red box by front door. This stop is yyy/safe. ”

The GUI explained

Last Mile Assistant always focuses on the next stop, and makes mission critical information available to the driver just at the right moment. 400 yards before reaching the address, the driver is reminded of the house number or name that they are headed to, and what to expect when they get there:

  • Delivery or pick-up
  • Number of items
  • Delivery information stored by the customer
  • Defined secure locations.

The information is actively read out loud and can be repeated at any time via an easy voice command. If the announced time window is ending soon, a reminder is issued.

The Voice UX logic flow

Although much of this information exists in the hand scanner, it cannot be read on the small display during the journey. If the programme is then delivered and scanned, the assistant automatically switches to the next stop on the route. As a significant bonus, the whole package also works offline to help with limited and patchy internet connection in rural areas.

The field test: DHL Hub, Leicester

Three drivers from the DHL Parcel Hub in Leicester were on the road for a total of six weeks in two phases throughout September and October 2020, delivering some 7500 deliveries using the Last Mile Assistant integrated into the head unit of a VW Crafter. The routes covered all feasible types from inner-city to remote rural, and included both deliveries and collections for private and business customers — a real cross-section of everyday business.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which also fundamentally changed way of life around the world, the conditions were unique: parcels are currently not acknowledged in person but documented as delivered via a photo log. Moreover, almost all recipients are at home — little wonder, given the nature of the lockdown.

Drivers evaluated the assistant’s performance on a week-by-week basis. To fully understand the working environment and to witness their interactions with the assistant, we rode in the vehicles with each driver. The days concluded with in-depth interviews to track progress as the assistant was iterated and improved by the tech team in Berlin. The result of this qualitative research was positive: our hypotheses were confirmed. The Last Mile Assistant simplifies work processes and boosts productivity by providing useful information at the right time, it is rated as easy-to-use and makes the driver reach for the scanner less frequently.

For full access to the results of our comprehensive field test, and to find out more about how we build voice assistance for logistics and delivery fleets, visit germanautolabs.com — and thank you for reading!

We build voice assistance solutions for professional drivers.