For years, Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos has talked about his desire to deliver packages by drone. Now, the company might be moving toward automating more of the logistics process on the ground.

Amazon received a patent Tuesday for part of a self-driving network. First spotted by Recode, the patent is for a system that can detect changes in traffic flow that are only indicated by overhead traffic signals.

It's a very specific (and unexciting) aspect of driving. But the bigger picture is that the patent seems to indicate that Amazon is seriously considering moving into the autonomous vehicle space.

That would tie in with its apparent ambitions to control the delivery process from start to finish. The company bought thousands of trailers in 2016, which, to start, will ship packages from one fulfillment center to another. Amazon still uses mail delivery services like the U.S. Postal Service for the last leg of the shipping process, but it's been trying to work around that -- like with its proposed drone delivery program.

Perhaps more immediately, the company could use self-driving trucks for shipments between fulfillment centers. Of course, Amazon isn't the only company looking to replace human drivers in logistics with artificial intelligence. Otto, a startup acquired by Uber last August, successfully transported a shipment 120 miles in an automated truck in October. (It's worth noting that widespread adoption of self-driving trucks, which seems more and more likely, could lead to 1.6 million drivers being replaced by automation in the U.S. alone.)

Uber has already rolled out automated taxis in a number of cities and has been very open about its ambitions of creating self-driving taxi fleets. Tesla has similar ambitions. Elon Musk has repeatedly referenced the Tesla Network, an eventual competitor to Uber that would also include self-driving mini-buses.

Google, meanwhile, recently announced it was putting the development of its own self-driving cars on hold, focusing on creating software that it could license to existing automakers. And Apple acknowledged in a December letter to U.S. regulators that it was working on automated transportation systems.

According to Recode, Amazon's patent appears to indicate that its design would be compatible with other companies' systems as well.

Published on: Jan 18, 2017