University of Michigan – delivery robots emit as much CO2 as humans

The University of Michigan has concluded that delivery robots emit similar carbon emissions as people doing the same job. The research could help inform the future of automated delivery as the pandemic drives demand for online shopping.

The research looked at the environmental impacts of residential package deliveries that use electric and fossil fuel powered autonomous vehicles and two legged robots that ferry goods from hubs to customers in the final mile leg. They compared this to those impacts of a human conducting the final mile delivery.

The University of Michigan found that robots and automation contribute less than 20% of a package’s carbon emissions. Most of the emissions however come from the vehicle taking the parcel close to the front door. The research showed that vehicle powertrain and fuel economy are key factors determining overall emissions.

In short, by switching to electric vehicles and reducing the carbon intensity of a battery electric vehicle will have the biggest impacts on reducing the overall carbon footprint of a parcel being delivered.

The research is important as the carbon emissions were measured for the full lifecycle from the robots’ and vehicles’ manufacturing to the deliveries themselves until they are disposed of at the end of their useful lives – this was not just looking at the deliveries themselves. Some 12 suburban delivery delivery scenarios were assessed as part of the research.

“We found that the energy and carbon footprints of this automated parcel delivery in suburban areas was similar to that of conventional human driven vehicles. The advantages of better fuel economy through vehicle automation were offset by greater electricity loads from automated vehicle power requirements,” said Gregory Keoleian, the Peter M. Wege Endowed Professor of Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability and a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

“For all delivery systems studied, the vehicle-use phase is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, highlighting the need for low-carbon fuels for sustainable parcel delivery. It is critically important to decarbonise grids while deploying electrified vehicles.”