Which Is the Future of Delivery: E-Cargo Bikes or Drones?

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Laurie Featherstone on bike

Both may take trucks off the road, but bring on the bikes.

Christopher Mims writes in the Wall Street Journal describing How Robots and Drones Will Change Retail Forever. He describes a "physical cloud" of e-commerce that will deliver goods from the warehouse to your door.

Delivery is about to change drastically too. Amazon, Google, Uber and many startups are working on autonomous delivery drones that will one day connect us to the physical cloud.
delivery drone

© Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

But before long, the skies could become extensions of the physical cloud, connecting us the way our mobile phones connect us to cloud computing. Imagine a drone dropping out of the sky to deliver you an iced coffee on your walk to work.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the Department of Transport is putting its money behind a different form of delivery- e-cargo bikes. (Why are they not called cargo e-bikes?) Rebecca Morley writes in Bike Biz that the government will contribute up to 20 percent of the purchase price, up to a top price of £5,000.

The Government has said this fund will help to cut congestion and improve air quality, encouraging companies to replace older, polluting vans with a zero emission alternatives to create a cleaner, greener future. Money will be split between larger fleets and smaller operators to ensure benefits are available to and spread between all sizes of business.

This is on top ofa previous £2 million funding package to promote e-cargo bikes. It all seems like a good idea with a quicker return than drones or robots. As Andy Cope of Sustrans notes,

In urban areas where space is limited we need to focus on moving people and goods as efficiently as possible - cargo bikes, including electric models have a key role to play. With leadership and urgent action, e-cargo bikes could transform cycling for many businesses, including delivery and maintenance services, and help tackle congestion and poor air quality by making cycling a realistic transportation choice.
cargo bike

That's no drone, it's a Bullet in Copenhagen./CC BY 2.0

Here are two dramatically different approaches to delivery. Mims is describing a vast cloud of robots and drones, a “physical cloud, an e-commerce ecosystem that functions like the internet itself." No doubt, like the internet and the current cloud itself, it will consume vast amounts of power to run all of this.

apple watch delivery

Watching my Apple watch cross the world via UPS/Screen capture

The e-commerce cloud also pretty much exists; I followed the progress of my Apple Watch from Suzchou to Anchorage to Louisville to Buffalo to Toronto and ended up deciding never to buy online like this again; surely the carbon footprint of that is higher than me hopping on my bike and going to the Apple Store for an off-the-shelf product.

If I have to decide between the two worlds, I think the e-cargo bike vision beats the drone, and the UPS truck.