Why Self-Driving Delivery Trucks Make More Sense for Amazon Than Drones

A drone delivers a package on a skyscraper balcony.

Prapass Pulsub / Getty Images

Drone. Just by using that word, I’m assured of massive social media interest in this post. So, drone, drone, drone. But far from jumping on the Jeff Bezos' drone phenomenon, I’m going to burst its bubble. Or maybe clip its wings.

You bet, this is a fun thing to talk about. But Bezos got it entirely right when he said the part that everybody ignored — that his company wouldn’t be making drone deliveries anytime soon, and that any such plan would need Federal Aviation Administration approval. You bet it would. Aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky made a similar splash in the '50s when he said we’d all soon be commuting to work by helicopter — can you imagine the air-traffic nightmare that would cause?

Here’s just one issue raised in a long FAA report that throws up a lot of cautions and caveats about what it calls unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). “Existing standards ensure safe operation by pilots actually on board the aircraft. These standards may not translate well to UAS designs where pilots are remotely located off the aircraft.... The UAS pilot...does not have the same sensory and environmental cues as a manned aircraft pilot.” Yeah, ya think?

Bezos said deliveries could happen “in four or five years,” but that’s unlikely. The FAA says unmanned aircraft aren’t going to get into U.S. airspace until at least 2020, and even then there could be all kinds of restrictions on it, including range. Most hobbyist drones now operate within sight of their operators, but deliveries would have to go well beyond that. (Bezos said up to 10 miles, with five-pound payloads.) I don’t know about you, but I don’t live that close to an Amazon distribution center.

And wouldn’t they be easy to hijack? Mother Jones says, “All it could take is an effective drone-destroyer — a hunting rifle? laser weapon? laser pointer? — for a bandit to be watching your movies, wearing your slippers, and making smoothies in your blender.”

Airspace is tricky; surface roads are easier. And that’s why I see self-driving vehicles (probably electric) as better suited to making deliveries than drones. Think about it. Tiny unmanned aircraft carrying a single package strikes me as inefficient. A purpose-made delivery vehicle could plot an ideal route to service multiple locations, with onboard automation depositing the packages in specially made GPS-enabled bins, then returning to base to plug in and get loaded again.

Drones, Bezos admitted, "won’t work for everything; you know, we’re not gonna deliver kayaks or table saws this way. These are electric motors, so this is all electric; it’s very green, it’s better than driving trucks around." That's an important caveat from him, because so much of Amazon's business today actually is kayaks and table saws. And, I argue, the delivery trucks can be electric, too, and pound for pound they may be "greener" than delivering by drones.

I’m not predicting this scenario is around the corner, either. And you could rip off autonomous Amazon trucks, too. Self-driving drones face many other hurdles, mainly having to do with safety and liability. The technology isn’t the hard part — give any reasonable tech team six months to a year, and they should have a system ready to go. Just don’t hire the people who put Healthcare.gov together.

Self-driving cars are ahead of drones in that they’re actually legal in Florida, California and Nevada. Google has driven millions of miles in them. Despite all that, getting past the experimental phase and actually commercializing autonomous vehicles could be a decade away.

But really, don’t worry about this taking a while. In a way, these solutions address a problem we don’t really have. Doesn’t say, pizza delivery, give a lot of young people much-needed work? Or a package delivery company? The drivers are pros, so it’s not like using drones will eliminate a public safety hazard.

I agree that drones are really cool. Wired editor Chris Anderson quit the magazine business to make drones. I watched an eye-popping demonstration of what they can do at the recent Society of Environmental Journalists conference. But drones have to go from the novelty/hobbyist effect to performing useful work for society, and aside from taking out terrorists, that day has not yet arrived.

In case you somehow missed it, here's an idealized look at how "Amazon Prime Air" — with drones — would work: