Automated deliveries can make our lives easier

Conversations about smart cities often centre on data-driven energy grids and next-generation traffic systems, but they rarely focus on the one small change we are all going to have to make sooner or later. Never mind self-learning thermostats and autonomous vehicles – we are going to need new mailboxes.

The movement to automate our purchases is already well advanced. Everything from groceries to laundry detergent can be ordered online and delivered to our homes, in some cases at the mere push of a button.

Amazon, for one, is moving ahead with Dash – a wand-like device that scans household goods such as cereal boxes and soup cans and automatically orders them from the online retailer for delivery the same day.

This sort of automated shopping is only going to accelerate as Amazon and others experiment with new forms of delivery, such as using Uber drivers or even airborne drones to drop off purchases.

But what happens when no one is home to receive that delivery? Many courier services will not leave packages unless there is someone there to sign for them. That is probably a good thing, since no one wants to have valuable goods sitting on their doorstep, an open invitation for theft to the less honourable among us.

Getting an order stolen is a good way to put anyone off automated shopping forever.

Luckily, although the issue has escaped widespread public discourse so far, there are some start-ups and postal operations that are thinking about solutions to this burgeoning problem.

Ring and SkyBell, two competing US-based start-ups, are each selling “smart” doorbells that bring the same sort of video calling we are used to on Skype or FaceTime to the front door. It is a simple but genius idea – a US$199 doorbell connects to your home Wi-Fi network and sends notifications to your phone whenever somebody rings it.

From there, you can have a video chat with whoever is at your door. If it is a courier or other delivery person, you can give them consent to drop off the package and even instructions on where to put it. It doesn’t solve the signature requirement that many couriers have, but that may just be a temporary formality that will fall off as these new technologies take hold.

A similar effort comes from Doorman, another US start-up that is launching in Chicago and New York. Doorman acts as a middleman – shoppers can direct their packages to be dropped off at the company’s storage facility, then set up a specific delivery time at their home that works for them. There is at least one other US start-up – Parcel – competing in the same space.

Middleman delivery services are an effective way of avoiding the often random times that couriers can arrive at. Rather than waiting around for a package to come at some point during a four- or eight-hour window, shoppers can schedule Doorman and Parcel deliveries for, say, 6.30pm sharp.

Doorman is also going a step further by partnering with August Smart Lock, a connected door lock that users can control with their phones, to offer a service that allows couriers one-time temporary access to homes. The idea is certain to make some people nervous, but for others it will be a boon, so long as the companies and their delivery staff are able to build up a reputation of trust.

The Irish start-up ParcelHome is working on a different approach in conjunction with the courier services DHL, GLS and DPD. The company ran a pilot project this year in which it installed smart mailboxes on the sides of 100 homes in the Belgian town of Mechelen, with plans to expand to the Netherlands, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

The locked boxes, which the company says are big enough to accept 95 per cent of deliveries, can be opened by couriers or delivery people from local shops and grocery stores using their smartphones. Home owners then get a notification that a delivery has been made.

As an added bonus, the boxes can also be used for returns – items can be placed inside to be picked up.

In the not too distant future, many homeowners are likely to adopt a hybrid form of all these options. Time is a precious thing, and nobody wants to waste it shopping for the mundane.

Then again, no one really wants to risk having their delivery of toilet paper stolen from their doorstep either.

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.

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