We spend our days (and occasional nights) telling people what route optimization is, and why it’s so important for delivery businesses.
One of the most common follow-up questions is: “Yeah, but doesn’t Google Maps do that?”
Google Maps is one of the best route planning tools available for simple routing scenarios. It’s free, fast, and user-friendly for all technical skill levels.
In this article, we’ll walk you through when it makes sense to use Google Maps to plan delivery routes, and when it’s likely you’ll need an alternative, such as route optimization software.
If you’re ever interested in finding the shortest path between points A and B, Google’s technology is going to absolutely nail finding the best roads for you to take — permitting you’re in a part of the world where it has sufficient map data.
In a nutshell, this is what happens when you ask Google Maps “what is the best way to get from A to B?”:
There’s more complexity to its algorithm that we’ll reserve for the advanced class, but ultimately you can trust that Google Maps not only gave you a very good path from A to B, but also it provided you with an extraordinarily accurate Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA). When Google released the Android operating system for mobile devices, it began capturing real time location and traffic data from users that made its ETA calculations accurate beyond anything we’ve known prior.
So to recap, if you’re looking for the shortest path between two stops, then you’ll almost certainly want to use Google Maps. Now, if you are planning an entire route with more than two stops, we are no longer talking about the path between A to B, but rather A to B to C to D and so on, until we’ve covered every stop in your route. The more points we add into the route plan, the less appropriate Google Maps becomes for the problem.
To plan your deliveries using Google Maps as your route builder, look no further than this helpful guide Google has put together.
Often, Google Maps is confused with being a route optimization tool. It can definitely be used for planning multiple stops. The distinction here is that while Google Maps is a tool that can be used to find the shortest path between stops, it was never designed to find the optimal order of those stops in your route. The person planning routes will need to plot addresses in Google Maps, and spend the time manually determining the most efficient order to serve them in. If you tell Google what order those stops should go in, you’ll get the best results possible for which roads to take; but you can’t ask it to provide the stop order for you.
The optimization of stop order is one way in which delivery route optimization software separates itself as a category from Google Maps’ software, which functions as a route planner for multiple stops, but not as a route optimizer. In fact, Google Maps is actually referred to as a “web mapping service”.
In a few words, route optimization is the usage of algorithms to identify the shortest possible distance or drive time for a given set of stops, with the end result being an optimal stop order. Since Google Maps will not determine the optimal stop order, it does not optimize routes. It’s also not really possible to optimize routes using manual methods, at least in a reasonable amount of time. Without the use of an algorithm, a route probably can’t be considered optimal simply because there’s too much math involved for a human to do. For example, for 1 delivery van and 50 destinations in any given metropolitan city, there are already quattuorvigintillion (that’s 1 with 76 zeroes) possible route solutions. As you add more delivery vans, the math gets even harder.
Route Optimization further acts as a solution to two of the most difficult computer science problems: the Traveling Salesman Problem (TSP) and the VRP algorithm can also take into account complexities, like time windows, into its search for the optimal route. These are not problems that Google Maps is aiming to tackle, which is further to the point that it’s a mapping service that can help with route planning, but not an optimization tool.
If you have more than a handful of stops, you’ll probably want a tool that can optimize your route. That is to say, you need a tool that can find the optimal order of stops, with all of their complexity, to ensure your routes are efficient. Why do routes need to be efficient? The costs associated with delivery route plans are recurring, and have one of the largest impacts on profitability, which we’ll break out into more detail soon.
Once you’ve gone above 5 addresses, planning efficient routes manually with Google Maps’ help can become very cumbersome, and prone to human errors — particularly when you need to take into account some circumstances regarding how you deliver your goods. It’s not uncommon for delivery businesses to spend a couple of hours in Google Maps just for one route plan. You’ll likely need an alternative to Google Maps if you have any of these 4 problems:
Time windows: Your customer wants their delivery to arrive within a certain timeframe (e.g. 2pm and 4pm).
Driver shift times and breaks: Your driver’s shift time needs to be incorporated into the route and/or tracked. Or your driver takes a break that needs to be accounted for.
Vehicle loads: You need to pay attention to how much a delivery vehicle can carry.
Stop distribution and route assignment: You need a solution that evenly distributes stops across your fleet of drivers, looks for the minimum number of drivers required, or assigns routes to the best or nearest driver.
Driver & Vehicle Prerequisites: You need to assign a driver with a specific skill-set or customer relationship to a stop. Or you need a certain vehicle (e.g. refrigerated) to handle a specific stop.
In Google Maps, the order of the stops in a route is left up to the user. You’ll need to look at the map, and drag and drop the addresses into the best order you can come up with for the drivers. The order of stops is also referred to as a sequence, and is usually the most important aspect of cutting your overall driving distance and working time per driver.
Many delivery businesses opt for route optimization software instead of Google Maps because driving distances and working time carry with them high fuel and wage costs, and using a route optimization tool that can find the optimal sequence of stops is the most effective way to reduce these. Another factor is that a good stop sequence is very time-consuming to attempt to figure out when planning manually.
At the time of this writing, Google Maps has a limit of 10 waypoints (stopping places in your route). This means that if a driver has more than 10 deliveries, you’ll need to upgrade to Google’s paid version, which increases the limit to 25 waypoints. Google Maps’ mobile app is fantastic for navigating after the sequence has been determined. As mentioned earlier, Google will nail the path you take from A to B in between each stop in the sequence. But unfortunately, you can’t use Google to decide the sequence of stops A, B, C, or D
If you have a list of addresses, and are dividing that list between two or more vehicles, you probably want to determine which driver should be getting certain delivery orders. This is where the aforementioned constraints get even more complex, as you consider factors such as:
It’s referred to in the academic world as the “Vehicle Routing Problem (VRP)” and asks, "What is the optimal set of routes for a fleet of vehicles to traverse in order to deliver to a given set of customers?". As referenced earlier, with 1 driver splitting 50 stops in a metropolitan city, there are well over quattuorvigintillion (that’s 1 with 76 zeroes) possible route solutions — that number only gets larger with more drivers.
As you can imagine, it’s pretty much impossible for humans to consistently find optimal routes on their own, even when the stops are clearly plotted on Google Maps. Google has developer tools for software engineers that can help you solve the VRP, but it does not have something out-of-the-box for solving it.
There is more for a delivery business to consider than optimal routes. Route planners often begin looking for alternatives to Google Maps when they encounter problems related to fleet management, delivery experience, and internal operations. Delivery businesses of all sizes tend to look for software solutions to help with the following:
Live Route Progress: Tracking driver location, identifying if they are sticking to their routes, ensuring they’re on target for the ETAs communicated to your customers, and knowing when a problem is happening are critical components of effective delivery route execution.
Customer Status Updates: There’s been a monumental shift in consumer expectations since Uber, Amazon, and others brought new technologies to the delivery space. Modern route optimization platforms can automatically communicate ETAs to customers by email and SMS (text messages). Coordination can otherwise be very labour-intensive when it’s being done manually.
Proof of Delivery: Capturing a signature so that proof of delivery can be easily sent over email not only protects delivery businesses from a legal standpoint, but also helps customers identify who collected the package, and at what time.
Delivery route optimization software providers have released a number of case studies in recent years. The results show that a delivery business can reduce its driving time by up to 40%, and route planning time by up to 95%.
Let’s start with time-savings for the person planning routes. The value of time is a non-monetary cost, but there are ways to calculate and translate it into a financial spreadsheet. Essentially, you weigh the time spent on route planning vs. your wage for that period of time + the additional monetary value you could generate by working on other tasks. Since route optimization software can reduce route planning time down to a couple of minutes, this is one of the most immediately recognizable impacts for planners who use manual or semi-manual routing methods.
To better understand the impact of the second benefit, reduced driving time, we first need to identify where specifically delivery businesses lose money with poor routes. There’s one key performance indicator that’s arguably the most important for this: “Cost Per Delivery”. This can be simplified into an equation:
Route optimization has become particularly important to delivery businesses because of competition in the market space. For profitability, revenues need to exceed costs, but delivery businesses aren’t finding a lot of room to raise prices. In fact, Morgan Stanley research points out that the biggest reasons potential customers do not opt for delivery is because of the price. This sentiment has led to a surge in route optimization software adoption for delivery companies of all sizes, as they look to lower operational costs and increase cash flow. Operating as efficiently as possible to lower delivery costs has now become productized.
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