Surmounting the Last Mile Challenge in Urban Areas, Part 2: Small and Clean Vehicles

Stephen DeAngelis

August 25, 2011

Yesterday, I discussed a couple of pipe systems whose creators envision using to move freight underground to help relieve street congestion. Today, I want to move above ground. I want to discuss some solutions to the urban “last mile” delivery challenge that have a greater likelihood of being widely implemented. As I noted in yesterday’s post, older cities often have narrow and/or crowded streets that are difficult to navigate. Stop a full-size truck to make a delivery on one of these streets and traffic necessarily comes to a halt. Even in newer mega-cities with wider streets, the amount traffic makes navigating and parking large vehicles a challenge. In addition, as large, internal combustion engine-powered vehicles idle in heavy traffic, they add to the pollution that can make urban life hazardous and unpleasant. The obvious solutions, of course, are to make vehicles smaller and cleaner. That is exactly what the designers of the vehicles I’ll discuss today have done.

 

One of the early entrants into the fray was Modec, who built “the first zero emission van that is comparable in economy and performance to diesel equivalents.” [“New high performance, zero emission commercial vehicle,” by Michael Hanlon, Gizmag, 23 March 2006]. The Modec van had a range of up to 120 miles could reach a top speed of 50 mph carrying a load of up to two tons. “And with only three moving parts in the electric motor instead of more than 300 in a typical diesel van engine, there [was] less to go wrong.” Although, Modec never became a household name “its silent electric vans are a fairly common sight in London and are used by many well known companies such as Tesco, UPS and FedEx.” Unfortunately, the company didn’t survive and shut its doors earlier this year [“Modec, EV van maker, finally shut down,” Zero Emission Motoring, 1 April 2011] Although Modec’s vans successfully plied the streets of London, they would still be too big for some tight streets there and elsewhere.

 

In 2008, PSA Peugeot Citroën and fuel cell specialist Intelligent Energy introduced a smaller van, the H2Origin demonstrator vehicle. [“H2Origin demonstrator vehicle achieves 300km range,” by Noel McKeegan, Gizmag, 22 April 2008]. McKeegan reported:

“A three year collaborative research project by PSA Peugeot Citroën and fuel cell specialist Intelligent Energy has born fruit in the form of the H2Origin demonstrator vehicle, a battery-electric vehicle that uses a specially designed hydrogen fuel cell to triple its range to an impressive 300km (186 miles). The hydrogen storage system developed for the zero-emission demonstrator vehicle, which is based on the Peugeot Partner Origin van, is compact enough to squeeze under the bonnet and utilizes a swappable storage rack of compressed hydrogen tanks that slide out the rear, by-passing the need for a conventional fuel station and therefore simplifying the infrastructure needed to make hydrogen-powered vehicles a commercial reality.”

I couldn’t find any follow-on articles that would lead me to believe that the H2Origin has been put into production. However, its size, zero-emission propulsion, and swappable storage rack capability makes this concept standout. According to the article, “The fuel cell units have a lifetime of 5,000 hours, or about five years based on an average use of three hours per day.” Delivery vehicles, of course, are going to be used more (probably a lot more) than three hours per day. I suspect one reason that the H2Origin has not caught on is because fuel cell technology hasn’t caught on. Hybrid and all-electric vehicles appear to be the direction that most companies are taking.

 

In 2009, Mitsubishi unveiled its i-MiEV CARGO as a concept vehicle. MiEV stands for Mitsubishi innovative Electric Vehicle and the CARGO is only one of the vehicles in that line. [“Mitsubishi i-MiEV CARGO and PX-MiEV Plug-in hybrid crossover concepts,” Gizmag, 1 October 2009]. The article reported, “The CARGO in particular looks like it will fill an immediate need for emission-free delivery vehicles in the world’s most congested cities.” Although Mitsubishi was reportedly “accepting pre-orders for delivery in April 2010,” the latest article I could find still listed the CARGO as a concept vehicle. [“Mitsubishi i-MiEV Cargo,” House of Japan, 12 June 2011] That article reported:

“Derived from the production i-MiEV, this concept maximises the outstanding environmental performance and economic efficiency characteristics that define the EV and at the same time adds a generous amount of rear free space to extend the range of uses to which it can be put by corporate users and self-employed operators in particular. The rear space features space-efficient cubic dimensions to allow the user to exercise their imagination fully in adapting it for whatever use he/she chooses. The result is a concept for an EV that meets user needs for a variety of situations: from business use, where maximum payload space is required, to leisure and other individual owner uses. Measuring 1350 mm wide by 1180 mm deep and 1100 mm high and having a flat floor, the cube-shaped luggage compartment at the rear of the vehicle allows every inch of available space to be utilised. The height of the compartment floor has been designed to facilitate loading and unloading of luggage and make it more user-friendly.”

Another company that has made a splash with an all-electric commercial vehicle is Ford. [“Ford unveils long awaited 2011 Transit Connect Electric van,” by Mick Webb, Gizmag, 18 February 2010] Webb reported:

“The Ford Motor Company[‘s] … all-electric light duty commercial vehicle is the first in Ford’s accelerated electrified vehicle plan. … Ford developed the all electric van in partnership with Azure Dynamics using Azure’s Force Drive battery electric powertrain and Johnson Controls-Safts lithium-ion battery technology. … The Transit Connect Electric van is expected to have a top speed of 75mph and a targeted range of up to 80 miles on a full charge. Owners of the vehicle will be able to recharge either at standard 120V outlets or at a 240V charge station installed at the user’s giving a full charge in six to eight hours, with a transportable cord enabling charging at either. … Ford says the Transit Connect Electric is ideal for fleet owners with well defined routes that travel predictable distances and have access to a central recharging location. The company goes on to say that aside from having the advantage of a lower cost of operation, the vehicles also offer lower maintenance costs over the life of the unit with fewer moving parts, as well as doing away with oil changes and tunes ups.”

The Transit Connect Electric van is now in production and recently completed an Eco Rally in the UK that tested the limits of its range. [“Transit Connect Electric vans complete 75-mile Oxford to London Eco Rally,” by Eric Loveday, autobloggreen, 5 August 2011]. Mercedes-Benz has also introduced an all-electric cargo van for urban use called the Vito. [“Mercedes shows pre-production electric Vito Van,” Gizmag, 13 February 2010] The article reports:

“During 2010, more than 100 Mercedes-Benz Vito vans [were] delivered to 20 customers, primarily fleet operators and public institutions wishing to transport items in environmentally sensitive zones with zero emissions, including no CO2 emissions, and low noise. Deployment scenarios therefore typically involve short distances and making many stops in urban areas. Production of a further 2000 vehicles is planned in the next phase. The drive configuration is designed solely to run on battery power and thus dispenses with the powertrain intended for combustion engines. A battery featuring powerful lithium-ion technology supplies energy to the Vito. … The Vito’s range averages 130 km but can be considerably higher given an appropriate driving style. … Performance is oriented around customer requirements: an electronically limited top speed of 80 km/h is designed to meet … customers’ transportation needs in and around urban areas.”

One company taking the hybrid route is Bright Automotive. [“The appropriately named Bright IDEA hybrid delivery van,” by Ben Coxworth, Gizmag, 30 January 2010] Coxworth reports:

“Bright Automotive is a product of the Colorado-based green think-tank, the Rocky Mountain Institute. They launched in January 2008, and by the following May, were unveiling the IDEA to the world at the Electric Vehicle Symposium in Norway. The vehicle was designed with input from corporate clients, who dictated what they wanted in the way of comfort, utility and efficiency. The IDEA has a claimed 40-mile all-electric range, and gets nearly 40mpg in standard hybrid mode. This is thanks in part to its lightweight, aluminum/composite construction. By Bright’s calculations, clients will save $US.18 per mile and 1,500 gallons of fuel per year, over gas vehicles. On a larger scale, a fleet of 250,000 IDEAS should save 30 million tons of CO2 and 2.8 billion gallons of fuel over their 150,000-mile life cycle. The IDEA has more to offer than fuel-efficiency. For starters, its front passenger seat converts into an office that includes a laptop/work surface, file storage, and an electronics charging center. It also has an interactive touchscreen console, and an integrated structural bulkhead, to keep the cargo in the back where it belongs. Most of the materials used in its interior are either recycled, recyclable, or come from natural, renewable sources.”

Although the IDEA is not yet in production, the company announced earlier this year that it was hiring 200 employees “in Southeast Michigan in 2011 to help make the Idea plug-in hybrid van a reality.” [“Great IDEA! Bright Automotive looking for 200 new employees,” by Sebastian Blanco, Autobloggreen, 4 Janaury 2011].

 

When streets are too narrow for even the smallest of vans, the best solution might be a scooter. Honda and Vectrix both offer such vehicles. Honda’s scooter is called the Gyro. [“Honda’s 50cc three-wheeled Gyro cargo scooter,” Gizmag, 8 December 2009] The article reports:

“Honda’s three-wheeled Gyro, [is] a Japanese-only delivery scooter with two wheels at the back that tilts. … Honda’s three-wheeled Gyro can be purchased naked or fully enclosed and is designed like a cab-chassis utility, to be fitted with an aftermarket rear section suitable for your line of business. To say they are the most common road vehicle in Tokyo, the world’s largest and most congested urban area, is no exaggeration. The frugal 50cc engine enjoys a tax break in Japan, and in a city where vehicles rarely get near the speed limits, is more than powerful enough to get the job done. Equally interesting is the array of boxes built onto the platform, some of which offer enough carrying capacity to fit a small third world country. It’s a monumental sales success in Japan and has been produced in one form or another for 28 years, with the actual Gyro model now in production for 27 years.”

Surprisingly, the article reports that the design for the Gyro is actually British and was “first marketed as the BSA Ariel 3 in 1970. The company fell apart soon after that and it was subsequently licensed to Honda.” As successful as it has been, I won’t be surprised if it eventually gets marketed globally. Costing less than $3500, I suspect it would be profit-maker. While Honda’s Gyro uses a conventional internal combustion engine, Vectrix’s Maxi-Scooter is an electric vehicle. [“Vectrix Electric Maxi-Scooter three-wheeler prototype,” by Michael Hanlon, Gizmag, 16 November 2006] Hanlon reports:

“While the established players in the scooter game have shown concept machinery in the fuel cell, electric and hybrid genres, there’s one European company that has been quietly going about the business of designing and building a viable electric maxi-scooter with performance roughly equivalent to a 400cc conventional internal combustion engined mount – Vectrix. The Vectrix maxi-scooter is 100% emission free, has a top speed of 62 mph and runs for up to 68 miles on a single 2-hour charge from a standard electricity socket. Combined with low running costs, minimal maintenance, ease of operation, and generous storage, the Vectrix maxi-scooter is the world’s first practical zero-emission two-wheel vehicle. … The great news is that Vectrix recently purchased the EV rights to the innovative Vespa three wheeled carving scooter. … The variable front suspension provides stability at low speeds and excellent handling at higher speeds. The 3-wheel scooter is extremely versatile and will be popular with local businesses and with consumers with limited riding experience as well as being ideal as a delivery vehicle and council/police mount.”

The last mile in most supply chains is the most difficult to master. Some of these innovative vehicles may help make that challenge a bit easier.